After meeting descendants of 15-year-old waifs Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston, I wanted to tell the true story behind these determined survivors, whose 12,000-mile journey to the other side of the earth pushed them to the edge of survival. The two fiery Scots were transported from London “beyond the seas” in 1836 for pilfering stockings. Richly-documented evidence and artifacts reveal the largely hidden history of 25,000 women deported along with Agnes and Janet to serve as “tamers and breeders” in the new colony of Australia where men outnumbered women nine to one. Bits and pieces of everyday life echoed in the final farewells before transport on London’s docks: a penny inscribed with words of remembrance or a lock of hair (the sign of beauty for Victorian women) pressed into a loved one’s hand.
Crammed into converted slave ships, at the mercy of the crew during a treacherous four-month journey around Africa, the women – most petty thieves – were imprisoned at the Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen’s Land, present day Tasmania. They were greeted by a rebellious sub-culture that sprang to life as their captors slept. The women more sinned against than sinning dressed up in bright scarves and gaudy jewelry, smuggled in through a well-oiled underground economy. They sang and danced under the moonlit cliffs of Mount Wellington, finding solidarity and strength in one another. They devised schemes to meet paramours in town, including smuggling love letters inside chickens that were delivered to corrupt wardens. Their heroes were rebels like themselves: the irrepressible Ellen Scott, the leader of the first female “Flash Mob,” and “Jemmy the Rover” who escaped over the prison walls dressed in men’s clothing and lived for a year as a timber cutter before she was caught.
The Cascades continent lived large in spite of their lot in life. The women who triumphed over tragedy would settle for nothing less than equality. Once they earned their freedom after a minimum seven years of indentured servitude, these alpha females went on to found a society that led the world in women’s rights.
About the author: Deborah Swiss received her B.A. magna cum laude from Bowdoin College and her Ed.M and Ed.D. from Harvard University. She is the author of The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, and several other non-fiction books. Please visit her website at www.deborahswiss.com. Check out this video that features interviews with convict descendants talking about women’s role in history.