Come face to face with convict women at the Archives

Media release: Monday, 11 May 2009

A confronting and inspiring exhibition that explores the harsh lives of women held in convict female factories opens at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 14 May 2009. It will be on show until 19 July.

Women Transported – Life in Australia's Convict Female Factories brings alive stories of female feistiness and determination in an often ignored chapter of Australia's early colonial life. The most famous of Australia's 12 female factories was in Parramatta and opened in 1804.

An estimated 9000 to 10,000 of almost 25,000 convict women transported to Australia were placed in a factory. The women stayed there until they were employed by free settlers, were reassigned, gave birth to their children or received court-ordered punishment. About one in five Australians has an ancestor who spent time in a female factory.

Featuring original works of art, archaeological items, interactive elements and some of the earliest colonial artefacts in the country, the exhibition includes personal accounts of these women and documents their lives in the factories and their skills across 200 occupations including as dairymaids, washerwomen, weavers, spinners, seamstresses and teachers.

Curator Gay Hendriksen said:

Contrary to the myths, only a handful were prostitutes and the majority were literate. These resilient women went on to pioneer the land, raise families, conduct businesses and run farms. They helped define the Australian character and it is surely time their story – our story – is told.

Among the objects on display are a laundry dolly, convict shirt remnants, early letters, bookmarks and a christening gown. Paintings by colonial artists Augustus Earle and John Skinner Prout also feature.

Women Transported is a Parramatta Heritage Centre exhibition. The National Archives is the only other venue to host the full exhibition in its original form.

Gay Hendriksen is available for interview and high-resolution images can be downloaded from the media showcase.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017