Saturday, April 5, 2014

Historic Prisons - Tasmania and Sydney

As Americans we knew that Australia started as a British penal colony, but few other details. We added substantially to our knowledge while in Tasmania.

Prison at Port Arthur - being rehabbed
Most convicts had been charged in Great Britain with robbery or a similar crime - men might be transported after several arrests, women after one. The males transported to Australia had or learned skills important to its development.

In Tasmania we visited Port Arthur and the Cascades Female Factory, which respectively housed men and women who had re-offended in Australia. A visit to both contrasts how male and female convicts were treated and the resources spent to develop these historic sites.

The Port Arthur Historical Site was probably our best travel bargain (except for the free tour of the Botanical Gardens in Sydney). The $35 AUS/person ticket included a harbor and foot tours. We skipped the former to have lunch (a reasonably priced cafeteria with lots of choices). As part of our tickets we received the name of a former prisoner and our visit started with visiting an exhibit that told his story. Our inmates' biographies reinforced two themes: most were convicted of theft and learned skills while at Port Arthur.

Next we joined our walking tour. Our guide was Colin - he moved us from place to place and told us stories of prison life and the prisoners - much better than trooping from building to building. Shortly after their arrival inmates were typically assigned to hard labor, perhaps as part of a logging team. Inmates who did not cause trouble could be trained in trades needed by the prison community or to help with the development of Australia, e.g., ship building.

The complex included a Special Prison, similar to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Its inmates lived in total silence except during chapel services. Each day they had an hour of solitary recreation. It seemed less harsh than Eastern State because of the church services and the men seemed to have access to more reading material than just a Bible.

The grounds involve a lot of walking. We spent four hours and could have easily stayed longer. We enjoyed the Government Garden, which was still in bloom, and watching the bees at work. We visited the convict-built church which could accommodate 1000 persons. It was gutted by fire in 1884. Nearby was St. David's Church, an active Anglican Church, that was built after the prison was closed.

A busy bee
Two busy bees

Prison Church
Inside St. Davids
Meredith, Guide at Female Factory
The next day we went to Cascades Female Factory in Hobart. What a contrast. Women sent to the Female Factory had a shorter criminal record than the men at Port Hobart. When the women arrived those who had exhibited good behavior on their way from England were immediately available for domestic service. The women who hadn't behaved as well and were guilty of minor crimes or who had been promoted from the "criminal class" were assigned to tailoring duties. Eventually these women could enter domestic service.Women  who had caused trouble on the voyage from England or at the factory, or who were repeat offenders were assigned to the criminal class and they did laundry for the Factory and locals. (The details of who was assigned to the criminal class and for how long vary, probable due to the limited research on the women convicts as opposed to the men.) The skills the women were taught were appropriate for domestic service, and unlike the Port Arthur inmates schooling was not available. The Factory was overcrowded and conditions were grim; 80 percent of the babies born at the Factory died within a year.

We learned the above from the Factory's brochure and our guide. The site has had little rehabilitation. It consists of only 3 of the 5 original yards. We arrived about an hour before a scheduled tour, but the site had too little information to make just wandering worthwhile. So we waited for the tour. Our guide Meredith filled in the blanks. I left with the impression that the women were warehoused until they could be moved into domestic service. Also, women were needed to help increase Australia's population. Marriage after entering domestic service apparently was not uncommon. When I asked about food (unlike Port Arthur the factory did not have a garden), I was told that the women were fed gruel. At Port Arthur the food wasn't great, but it did include protein.

The Female Factory site has fewer resources than Port Arthur. A visit of an hour is probably sufficient, but it is valuable to contrast the treatment/opportunities given to the men. Meredith insisted that the women were provided a better future than they would have had in industrial England. So did the men, but recogonizing women's worth outside the home and domestic work was over a century away.

When we were in Sydney we went to Cockatoo Island to see an art exhibit, which gave us an opportunity to visit a 3rd prison site. Our walk along the Convict Trail was a spur of the moment decision. There were a few signs, and remember observing that the daily rations contained far more protein than the men at Port Arthur. A few guards were around, but their task did not seem to include answering tourist's questions.

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