Friday, January 17, 2014

More sinned against than sinning

A recent visit to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania, was a most moving experience for me. Being the sole female in the audience of an interactive guided tour that tells the story of a young woman convict, I felt the full force of it. The two actors were excellent, and the booming wrath of the male overseer really put the fear into me and gave me an inkling of the terror and helplessness the poor women incarcerated in this dreadful place would have experienced.

From the memorial to the women who passed through Cascades

One aspect that particularly made me shudder was being sent to the solitary or dark cells. Without any light source and measuring about a yard wide and two yards long, just enough room to stand up and lie down in, a woman could be locked up in here for weeks or months for all kinds of reasons, including having had a baby out of wedlock, even if she had been a victim of rape or abuse at the hands of an overseer or employer to whom she had been assigned. It would have taken a woman of extraordinary mental resilience and courage to have survived such an experience and not emerge from the darkness totally insane. Yet some remarkable women did recover, went on to lead normal lives after they earned their freedom and become the founding mothers of a nation.

Remains of the cells.  Read more here

But what is also disturbing is that this appalling treatment of women wasn’t confined to just the faraway convict colonies of Australia in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Despite growing enlightenment over prison reforms, dark cells were still being constructed in British prisons. Here is a map dated 1875 from the Northumberland Archives of a proposed female dark cell to be built at Morpeth Gaol (now converted to luxury apartments). As of writing this, I don’t know if this cell was ever completed and used, but sincerely hope that it wasn’t and possibly someone reading this might be able to tell me more.

Copyright Northumberland Archives. Click here for larger version.

Morpeth Gaol today