Evidence Type: Journal article extract
One of the most important features in the civilization of any community is the condition and character of its women, and in Australia both the one and the other are peculiar. Few in number, in comparison to the multitudes of the other sex, they have not to seek after establishments, but establishments are seeking after them: that sole object of desire to three-fourths of the young ladies who have been respectably educated in England is easily obtained by every fair one who sets her foot in Sydney. Offers of marriage are poured forth on the first arrival of the convict vessels, and repeated on every subsequent opportunity, till among the host of competitors the happy man is selected. Of these interesting fair ones there are two classes, the higher and the lower. To the one class belong the mistress of the banquet we described, and other fine ladies who have haunted the theatres, the salons, and similar places not of the very worst repute: — dressed out in the most sumptuous apparel, with gorgeous shawls and splendid veils, bedecked and perfumed, they land, to excite wonder and admiration amongst the languishing swains of Australia. With every whim of a capricious woman exaggerated; with vanity more sensitive than that of the haughtiest coquette, for their importance, subsistence, everything, had depended upon their personal attractions: — hapless is the settler to whom one of this class is assigned to superintend his domestic affairs or to rear his children; still more hapless is the unfortunate being who, longing for a partner in his joys and sorrows, is tempted to make her the wife of his bosom.
With regard to the lower class of female convicts, MR MUDIE says: —
“As for the coarser portion of the sex, when equally depraved with their more showy companions, their language, manners, and conduct are infinitely too dreadful for public description.
“Their language, disgusting when heard by profligate men, would pollute the eyes cast upon it in writing. Their open and shameless vices must not be told. Their fierce and untameable audacity would not be believed. They are the pest and gangrene of the colonial society,—a reproach to human nature,—and lower than the brutes, a disgrace to all animal existence.”
Those among the female convicts who had attracted the attention of MRS FRY, and other female philanthropists, and were especially recommended in favourable terms, have generally turned out in New South Wales to be the very worst characters. However it is to be accounted for, female convicts are seldom reclaimed; with such women there are but one set of feelings which can often be appealed to with any hope of success; these are the instincts of a mother; women who have married and have a family are sometimes reformed. Marriage, however, amongst the convicts, has often any thing but a moral tendency, and in the country districts, the hut of assigned married servant becomes the brothel of the neighbourhood, and theft is the means of conciliating the goodwill of its mistress.
Some kind persons, a few years ago, viewed with sorry the great disproportion between the sexes which exists in this penal colony; and with inconsiderate zeal they made a hasty effort to remedy the evil. They swept the streets of London of a portion of its vagabond population; they depopulated the colonades of the Opera House; they collected together the wanderers of the Quadrant; and sought to convert them into the matrons of Australia, and into the mothers of its rising generation.* The result was such as might be expected; even the inhabitants of New South Wales raised a shout of indignant execration when presented with these crowds of female fiends. The streets of Sydney are polluted with the refuse of Westminster; and the free emigrants now outstrip in vice, and obscenity, those whose presence the laws have inflicted upon the shores of the Southern Ocean.
The factory, as it is called, at Parramatta is the means of accomplishing many and valuable purposes in the social economy of New South Wales. It is the chief abode of the female convicts, who are sent there, on their arrival in the colony, previous to their being assigned; it is a place of punishment for those who have misbehaved whilst in assignment; it is a lying-in hospital for convicts, who, when with child, are generally sent there by their masters, and received back again when the proper period has elapsed; it is a foundling hospital for the children of convicts, till they are three years old; it is the chief magazine of wives for the convicts and emancipists.† Well dressed, well fed, and with little do, the female convicts consume their time in that empty and listless gossip which is too often the only occupation of women, as society has denied them the right of taking an active part in the concerns of the world. These women, however, with characters more energetic than those of the herd, had the deeds and debaucheries of former days to narrate, and to boast of; and they could rejoice in the prospect of future revelry when again in the society of their flash companions. Well fitted for the task of superintendence was the matron of this house of ill-fame; and well assisted was she by her daughter, who were common prostitutes at Paramatta [sic]. In this life of ease, the female convicts remained till the period of nursing was over or till assigned, or till married. When, for the purpose of marriage, a visitor arrived, the inmates of the harem were paraded before him; the choice made, and the fair one willing, the knot was quickly tied, and the union consummated. Assigned convicts are allowed to marry, provided they can obtain the permission of their masters. The following amusing account of a rapid courtship is given by Mr MUDIE:—
“A young fellow who had just become free, and had got himself established on thirty acres of land, with a few pigs, &c. set off for the factory in search of a wife.
On his way he had to pass the estate of the writer of this work. In conversation with the wife of the porter at the gate, he mentioned the object of his journey. The porter’s wife advised him to pay his addresses to one of her master’s convict female servants, whom she recommended as being both sober and industrious, whereby he would at once gain a good wife, and spare himself a journey of a hundred and forty miles.
At the request of this Coelebs of Australia the damsel was sent for, and the bargain struck on the instant, provided the necessary consent of the lady’s assignee master could be obtained, which she herself undertook to solicit.
Entering the breakfast room of her master with an usually engaging aspect, and having made her obeisance in her best style, the following dialogue ensued.
Marianne.—I wish to ask you a favour, your honour.
His Honour.—Why, Marianne, you have no great reason to expect particular indulgence: but what is it?
Marianne (curtsying, and looking still more interesting).—I hope your honour will allow me to get married.
His Honour.—Married! To whom?
Marianne (rather embarrassed).—To a young man, your honour.
His Honour.—To a young man! What is he?
Marianne (her embarrassment increasing).—I really don’t know.
His Honour.—What is his name?
Marianne.—I cannot tell.
His Honour.—Where does he live?
Marianne.—I don’t know, your honour.
His Honour.—You don’t know his name, nor what he is, nor where he lives! Pray how long have you known him?
Marianne (her confusion by no means over).—Really, to tell your honour the truth, I never saw him till just now. Mrs Parsons sent for me to speak to him; and so, we agreed to be married, if your honour will give us leave. It’s a good chance for me. Do, your honour, give me leave.
His Honour.—Love at first sight, eh! Send the young man here.
His Honour.—Well, young man, I am told you wish to marry Marianne, one of my convict servants.
Coelebs (grinning).—That’s as you please, your honour.
His Honour.—As I please, Why, have you observed the situation the young woman [is] in? (Marianne being “in the way ladies wish to be who love their lords.”)
Coelebs (grinning broadly).—Why, your honour, as to that, you know, in a country like this, where women are scarce, a man shouldn’t be too “greedy!” I’m told the young woman’s very sober, and that’s the main chance with me. If I go to the factory, why, your honor knows, I might get one in the same way without knowing it, and that, you know, might be the cause of words hereafter, and she might be a drunken vagabond besides! As to the pickaninny, if it should happen to be a boy, you know, your honour, it will soon be useful, and do to look after the pigs.”‡
* For an account of the emigrants sent out in the David Scott, by the Female Emigration Board in London, see John Dunmore Lang, Transportation and Colonization, (London: A. J. Valpy, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1837), p.49.
†Statistics of the Factory of Parramatta in 1836.—The average number was 574 women, 136 children; 95 women were nursing children, about 30 of these were persons employed for that purpose, the remainder were mothers nursing the children born to them in the factory.—(James M’Arthur, Esq., New South Wales: its Present State and Future Prospects, (London: D. Walther, Piccadilly, 1837).
‡ James Mudie, Esq., The Felonry of New South Wales, (London: Whaley & Co., 1837).
See Original: B. L., “ART. IV: Life in the Penal Colonies,” The London and Westminster Review, Vol. V. and XXVII, (London: Henry Hooper, 13 Pallmall East, April—July 1837): 84-87.