In essence the book aims to illustrate the life experiences of three female convicts who were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) for seven to ten years in the 1830s. Two were Scottish teenagers who’d been living on the streets for some time, Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston. The other was Ludlow Tedder, a literate housekeeper who’d been sentenced for pawning her employer’s silverware. Ludlow’s young daughter Arabella was also sent out with her.
All three were confined to the Cascades Female Factory for part of their sentence and were there for some overlapping periods.
I found the book interesting for what I learned about the horrors of Newgate Prison in London and the conditions at the Cascades. It is appalling to think how little clothing and food these women were given, the shockingly unsanitary conditions under which they lived, and the double standards of the time. The story of Elizabeth Fry’s work to improve their conditions at Newgate was also interesting. I’d liked to have had more information on life as a female convict towards the end of transportation era to see what conditions had changed: the nod to Irish convict Bridget Mulligan was to my mind cursory and subject to stereotyping.
From our family’s perspective, the references to Oatlands in central Tasmania were also informative as Mr Cassmob’s Irish convict, Denis Collins, was there for part of his sentence.
As a reader I found this book difficult and “stumbling” to read. The writing style was excessively florid with superfluous adjectives at every turn, and some phrases repeated ad infinitum, in a way which worked against the story as a whole. I didn’t need to be told more than once or twice that Agnes was a “grey-eyed girl” or that she came from Glasgow, nor did I need the words “convict maids” to be always conjoined. The hyperbole made me sceptical about the accuracy of the content and would have benefited from a severe editing. I also found it irritating to read Americanisms in a book written about Australia and the UK. It does highlight how important it is to have a local reader do at least one edit.
These convict women were strong and resilient, whatever their faults and convictions, and I’d have liked to have known even more detail about their lives after gaining their Tickets of Leave as this is when they contributed to the development of Australia. No doubt this was partly due to the lack of documentary evidence for this period of their lives, in marked contrast to the detail from their convict period.
Summary: Worth the read to learn about life as a female convict in the early-mid 19th century, and of special interest to anyone with ancestors who may have been at Newgate or the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart. A more balanced, edited writing style would have been more convincing rather than leaving me wondering about the validity of some of the statements.
You may also be interested in an article by the author in from The Huffington Post this week about Cascades and its female convicts.
[i] Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. New York, Berkley, 2010.