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Convict Women

7508648I did a bit of sorting today and came across another old essay from9780521361262-us-300 university: HIST101 – Foundations of Australian Society. In it, we had to analyse the statement by historian Deborah Oxley and use specific evidence from Babette Smith’s A Cargo of Women to support or refute it.

This is, by no means, a comprehensive analysis. It was an essay by a first year university student. But, I have tweaked it a little (only a little) and thought I would present it here. I might actually look more closely at the issues raised at a later date. There is certainly some points that I would like to explore more thoroughly, not just using a sample of 20 convicts.

For some strange reason, my footnotes have not transferred over. But the bibliography is there so if anyone would like to know who said what, I’m happy to oblige.

The featured image is courtesy of The National Library of Australia.




The Quality of Convict Women

In Convict Workers. Reinterpreting Australia’s Past, which was edited by S. Nicholas, Deborah Oxley concluded her chapter on convict women entitled ‘Female Convicts’ with:

I have shown how prior to transportation the appellation ‘damned whore’ was also
totally inadequate. The female convicts were not professional members of the criminal class. These women were talented and skilful workers, many with an experience of migration attained within Britain and Ireland that aided them in their transition to what was for them a new land. As well, these mainly young women brought with them the ability to bear children and to create and perpetuate the future labour force.

This statement can be interpreted as just as sweeping and generalised as she charges other historians, such as “Manning Clark, Lloyd Robson and A. G. L. Shaw” with being. If a sample group of 20 women are examined, a pattern should emerge that will either confirm or deny Oxley’s conclusion. The Princess Royal sailed from Woolwich in London on 11th November, 1829 and arrived in Sydney Cove on 9th May 1829. The following women are the last twenty listed in the biographies in Babette Smith’s A Cargo of Women. Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the ‘Princess Royal.’:
STOKER, Elizabeth – aged 18
STOKES, Ann – aged 17
TAYLOR, Mary Ann – aged 21
THOMAS, Caroline – aged 34
TURBITT, Susannah – aged 20
TURNER alias DUNN, Catherine – aged 28/34
TURNER, Martha – aged 18
WALKER, Ann – aged 30
WHEAT (sometimes WEEKS) – aged 32
WICKS, Agnes – aged 28
WILLIAMS, Mary – aged 26
WILLIAMS alias CHAMBERS, Mary – aged 24
WOOLLER, Elizabeth – aged 30
WOTTON (sometimes WATSON or WOLTON), Mary – aged 19
WRIGHT, Ann – aged 30

For the examination to be balanced, all aspects of Oxley’s conclusion must be looked at. It would be easy to mistakenly either confirm or deny her statement on either emotion or a singular sentence within the conclusion.
Firstly, “… prior to transportation the appellation ‘damned whores’ was also totally inadequate.” The label of ‘whore’ will always be open to interpretation. The Collins Australian Pocket English Dictionary, published in 1981, states that the definition of ‘whore’ is: “a sexually promiscuous woman, esp., a prostitute.” It would seem, however, that in 2017, this definition has been redefined somewhat. The consensus from several on line dictionaries such as The Free Dictionary, and Merriam-Webster, is that the primary definition is that of someone who has sexual encounters for money and/or a prostitute. By all those definitions, including the 1981 definition, Oxley is correct in denying the appellation. The biographies show no evidence of promiscuity prior to transportation. Prostitution was not a transportable offence, which means that none of the women were sent to the colonies for the offence. There is no doubt that some of the women were surviving by means of prostitution. But there is certainly no evidence in this sample to support their being labelled of ‘whores’. Even after transportation, only four of the sample twenty women (Ann Storrett, Martha Turner, Margaret Williams and Mary Williams) were punished for offences concerning sex. While this does not consider those who were not punished, or those who have part of their biography missing, it also neglects to mention the economic circumstances of the offender or any other mitigating circumstances. Also, the class, upbringing and friends of the people labelling the female convicts as ‘whores’ must be taken into consideration: what is acceptable practice for some groups in a society is not acceptable for others. It is quite feasible that the loud, drunken behaviour that was ‘having a good time’ among some elements of the lower classes may appear promiscuous and sexual to the upper classes. Susannah Watson is an example of acceptability amongst one’s peers. She bore three illegitimate children in Australia. There is no doubt that her ‘superiors’ would have considered this scandalous, but it appears to have been acceptable amongst her own class, particularly if the woman was in a relationship with the child’s father. While it is quite possible that some of the female convicts were ‘whores’, the generalised label is not deserved, just as Oxley suggests.

The next claim is that “… female convicts were not the professional members of a criminal class.” This claim is difficult to either confirm or deny for a number of reasons. Firstly, from the sample group, only five had previous convictions. While this would suggest that the women were not habitual criminals, there is also another explanation; the other fifteen were very good at avoiding detection and had not been caught previously. What also must be taken into consideration is that in the early part of the 19th century , it was not the police who prosecuted criminals but private citizens. So, even if caught, many people were simply not taken to gaol. A more accurate guide is the nature of the offences. The most prevalent offence for which the women were transported was pickpocketing, with eight convicts from the sample being charged with that offence . Unless done within the framework of highly organised gangs (think Fagan from Oliver), it is hard to imagine that a living could be made from this type of activity alone. Therefore, it is more likely that pickpocketing was resorted to as a way to meet a shortfall in family income when it was needed. Unfortunately for some, this was quite often, which led to the deduction that many were professional criminals. Many got away with it because their victims were drunk or asleep when they were robbed. Crimes such as shoplifting and robbery were often to fill an immediate need. Pawning illegally obtained goods would probably be a desperate measure as it could be much more easily traced than many crimes. I am inclined to believe that the women in the sample would have committed crimes, even if done regularly, to supplement family income when needed, rather than as a preferred means of income. Again, Oxley appears to be justified in her claim that they were not members of the professional criminal class.
Oxley claims that the “… women were talented and skilful workers …” This claim is questionable. Of the twenty women in the sample, seven named ‘all work’ as their occupation. If housemaid (four), nursegirl (three) and kitchen girl, dairymaid, cook, laundress, glass polisher and barmaid (one each) are added to that, all twenty of the twenty were useful but not particularly skilled or talented professions. Two women listed needlewoman as a secondary occupation, while another added sempstress. While these occupations could be considered skilful, and quite possibly talented, they appear to be the exception rather than the rule. It is also interesting to note that those occupations were only listed as secondary, meaning quite possibly that they performed those tasks in addition to their other, less skilful occupations. Also, Oxley has failed to consider the record of the women once they had arrived in the colony; only five of the sample twenty did not receive punishment for refusal of orders, insolence, drunkenness, absconding or assault. Even if they had been skilful and talented, what use were those skills and talents when they were either difficult to work with or assigned to difficult people. The convict women, however, could be considered useful workers by their experience (if appropriately assigned); the claim that they were talented and skilful cannot be made on the evidence presented.

The claim that “… many [of the convict women had] … an experience of migration attained within Britain and Ireland that aided them in their transition to what was for them a new land” is superficial. It does appear to be true that many had experienced migration (50% were tried for thei offences in other than their native towns ) but it does not necessarily follow that this experience would aid them in migration to a country on the other side of the world. Oxley appears to be disregarding two very important factors. Firstly, many of the migrations within Britain and Ireland would have been made with their families. When the women were transported, they were forced to leave their families behind, including most of their children, if not all of them. The trauma of this would have been overwhelming. They knew that they would probably never see them again. Nothing could have prepared them for such painful separations that would change the whole structure of their lives. Secondly, the migrations prior to transportation were within Britain and Ireland: the climate, vegetation, animals and surroundings were, overall, familiar. This would have in no way prepared them for the conditions, flora and fauna they were to encounter in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land. Whether or not the change in climate, vegetation and landscape proved agreeable is irrelevant. The point is that migration within Britain and Ireland would not have equipped the women for life and conditions in the colony. There is also the inescapable fact that in Britain they were free women – they were convicts in Australia. Oxley is mistaken in her believe that migration within Britain and Ireland helped in the transition of these women to their new home.

The most complex of Oxley’s claims is “… these mainly young women brought with them the ability to bear children and to create and perpetuate the future labour force.” The first part of this statement is correct: the average age of the sample group is 25 years old. On the surface, it would appear that this fact would tend to confirm the rest of the statement. There are other factors, however, that must be looked at before any conclusions can be drawn.

Firstly, the marital status of the women when they arrived in the colony must be considered. Within the sample twenty, twelve were single, five were widowed and three were married. Except for Ann Wright, whose husband had been transported before her, the married women left their husbands behind. This meant that seventeen of the twenty were immediately available to marry (with the governor’s permission) and two were in the unfortunate position of having spouses half a world away but not being able to remarry. There were seventeen marriages amongst the sample twenty women: eleven of the single women, the five widows and, surprisingly, one of the already married women. The high rate of marriage, couple with the over average age, would appear at first glance to be favourable to the population growth of the colony. This was not the case, however, as will be shown later.

This marriage rate statistic must be taken a step further and the age of the women when they married must be considered. Within the sample group, the average age for a first marriage within the colony was approximately 28 years of age, which is only three years older than the average age on arrival. On the evidence in the biographies from the sample group in A Cargo of Women, only four women in the group gave birth in the colony. While information may be missing from the other biographies, it cannot be assumed that the number of births is significantly higher than the available evidence suggests. What is possibly even more important is the fact that only one of those women was under 30 years of age; Mary Tilley was 19 years old when she gave birth. Of the others, one was 33, another gave birth at 35 and 37 and the last had her babies at 35, 40 and 42. What is also intriguing is the final woman, Susannah Watson, had all three of her colonial children before her first marriage in the colony at the age of 48.

According to the evidence in the biographies in A Cargo of Women, only seven children were born to the sample group and the average maternal age was approximately 34 to 35 years. It is obvious that the young age of the women at both their arrival in the colony and their marriages had no bearing on their ability to populate the colony. Oxley has failed to take into account the lack of medical facilities and the isolation which may have contributed to a high infant mortality both pre and post-natally. It is quite possible that still births and babies who died early were not recorded and there is no way of knowing how many pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Add to this the risk of infection to the mother, which may have an impact on her further childbearing and you have a distinct possibility that the birth rate was indeed low.

Deborah Oxley’s conclusion to her article ‘Female convicts’ was written while looking through rose-coloured glasses. While some of her statements were correct, such as the unfair labelling of all convict women as ‘damned whores’, and that most of the female convicts were not professional criminals, she has chosen to ignore evidence to paint a rosy picture of the skills, experience and abilities of the convict women. They were not particularly skilful workers, their migration within Britain and Ireland did not help them adapt to life in the colony and the ability to produce children does not rely solely on the age of the female. Oxley was so determined to make female convicts appear wonderful that she only presented facts that she can interpret to back her claims. The convict women were not all bad, but they were not the pillars of society that Oxley would have us believe.

Definition of ‘whore’. (2017, December 10). Retrieved from The Free Dictionary:

Definition of ‘whore’. (2017, December 10). Retrieved from Merriam-Webster:

FRIEDMAN, D. (N/A). Making Sense of English Law Enforcement in the 18th Century. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from

Krebs, W. A. (Ed.). (1981). Collins Australian Pocket Dictionary of the English Language. Sydney.

Nicholas, S. (Ed.). (1988). Convict Workers. Reinterpreting Australia’s Past. Sydney.
Smith, B. (1988). A Cargo of Women. Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the ‘Princess Royal’. Sydney.


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Kerry A Waight - Author

A writer of historical fiction and paranormal stories.

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