One in five convicts who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land between 1788–1823 were women.
Most female convicts – as well as free women who had come to Australia looking for work – were sent to what were known as ‘female factories’. Often textile factories and other commercial factories, these institutions sometimes evolved into shelters for pregnant women, such as the Parramatta Factory.
Many convict women were in their early 20s, and had been deported from England for what are now considered minor crimes – petty theft and pickpocketing, often a result of the poverty brought about by the industrial revolution. The typical sentence for theft was seven years deportation, despite many being first-time offenders.
Mary Bryant, aged 21, was one such convict, sentenced to death for stealing a cloak, but her sentence was later commuted to seven years deportation. During her deportation to Australia, Mary gave birth to a daughter, Charlotte – named after the ship on which she arrived – and following her arrival on the mainland, she married fellow convict William Bryant and gave birth to a son, Emanuel.
After food shortages brought the convicts face to face with starvation, Mary and William, along with their two small children, decided to escape the settlement at Port Jackson along with another group of men. On 28 March 1791, they made their escape, stealing the Governor’s boat and heading towards Timor, where they hoped to make contact with Dutch colonies. They arrived in Timor on 5 June, after a risky journey of more than 5000 kilometres. When the group arrived in Timor, they told the authorities that they had survived a shipwreck, but before long their convict status was uncovered and all were imprisoned and sent to Batavi (now Jakarta). Here, Emanuel and William, as well as three others in the group, fell ill and died, and Mary and Charlotte were sent back to England. Charlotte, however, did not survive the long trip back, and Mary returned to England after losing her family, where she was to await trial.
Eventually, after her story became well known, she was excused and discharged from prison.