Convict women defied authority

Australia’s female convicts are often depicted as sluts and thieves. They stole, certainly, but usually from desperation. Their privileged contemporaries deplored sexual behaviour that did conform to middle class codes. But what were convict women really like?

Babette Smith’s new book, Defiant Voices, celebrates the defiance and resilience of the 25,000 women transported to Australia. It took courage to stand up to the power of the courts, which could rip prisoners away from family, children and homeland, and send them to the far side of the globe. Smith finds many stories of women who swore, shouted, mocked and sang in the face of judges, prison guards, naval officers and employers.

The prisoners saw no shame in their crimes when the alternative would have been starvation. Their refusal to show repentance in court angered and bewildered authorities:

When the judge pronounced a sentence of transportation,the two women were…extremely insolent to him and … ‘in vulgar language.. told him, “We have plenty of law but little justice.” Two other women joined in. …As they were about to leave the dock, they ‘jumped and capered about and laughing at the judge said, “Thank you my lord.”‘

page 29, Defiant Voices

The average age of female convicts was 25, but many were teenagers and a few were as young as 12. They banded together on board ships, at Female Factories and in workplaces, always ready to call out anything they considered unfair. In later life they often proved to be valuable employees, and many escaped their convict status through marriage. Noisy rebels often grew into respectable workers, wives and mothers. Some lived much longer, healthier lives that they could have hoped for in England or Ireland. Mary Reibey (page 111) became a successful trader who helped found the Bank of New South Wales. Catherine Mangan (page 146) , who left four children in Ireland, was often in trouble for drunkenness, but had another six children with her ex-convict husband and died at the age of 87. Sarah Leadbetter, (page 79), a pretty 19-year-old thief, met William Lawson of the New South Wales Corps on Norfolk Island. In 1812 they married and by the 1820s Sarah was the mistress of Veteran Hall at Prospect, arranging piano lessons for her daughters. Susannah Watson (page 233), Babette Smith’s forebear, left four children in England that she never saw again. The baby who came to Sydney with her died at the age of three. Susannah had a further two children in Australia, and in a letter to her daughter in England, described her new home as a “plentiful, extravagant” country. Except for the loss of her English children, she regarded transportation as the best thing that happened to her.

Defiant Voices has illustrations on nearly every page, many drawn from the National Library’s convict era material.

Young and defiant convict lass

Babette Smith dedicates the book to “the thousands of family and academic historians whose research into women convicts has produced such riches.” A few decades ago, in deference to widespread shame about our convict ancestors, archives and libraries made it difficult to access information about them. Now convict ancestors are celebrated rather than obscured, and many archivists, librarians and university lecturers owe their jobs to the widespread thirst for information about our past.

Defiant Voices brings a vast array of material on the convict system together with dozens of lively vignettes of individual convict women. This compelling book combines scholarship with original insights.


July 2021

Babette Smith, Defiant Voices, How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority, National Library of Australia Publishing, 288 pages, $49.99 – available from the NLA bookstore online, and other online outlets

Our authors challenge stereotypes

Two of’s authors challenge steretypes in their new publications. The National Library of Australia will soon publish Babette Smith’s Defiant Voices, a lively account of how female convicts challenged authority. In her novel Capriccio, Dina Davis brings fresh eyes to the “other woman” in a famous literary scandal.

Defiant Voices

25,000 women convicts were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1868. They are traditionally portrayed by their “betters” as depraved, foul-mouthed and promiscuous, but Babette Smith looks for evidence of their humanity and individuality. She discovers widespread instances of heroic defiance. Despite being convicted, transported, separated from homeland and family, they showed solidarity with other convicts and resistance to authority. They used their voices – in song, swearing and challenging remarks – to defy officials, on board ship, in court and at work. Smith argues that their resistance to authority contributed significantly to the broader Australian culture.

A young woman with an insult on the tip of her tongue

Smith’s subjects include thieves, rioters, insurance fraudsters, arsonists and murderers. They range from mothers of six to 12-year-old girls. They were not all “the most abandoned prostitutes”, but their sexual mores differed fromthe observers who labelled them. The women of Defiant Voices fought like tigers and drove men to breaking point with their collective voices, their lewd songs and “disorderly shouting”. Whenever they were confined together, they shared “war stories” of encounters with the law and punishment, and laughed in delight at each others’ tactics for getting back at the people in charge.

Babette Smith is the author of groud-breaking books of convict history, including A Cargo of Women and Australia’s Birthstain. Her new study, with its many illustrations, brings to life the resistance of thousands of convict women.

Capriccio: A Novel

Capriccio: A Novel, by our contributor Dina Davis, reimagines the notorious love triangle of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. The novel challenges the stereotype of Assia as the ruthless seductress, blamed for the death of Sylvia Plath.

Thomas Keneally says of Capriccio: “I think this is a fine evocation with barely a false note. I was fascinated by this work and its crisp style. Let me reiterate: I believe you have a world-wide engaging book here. I think you’ll ring a bell.”

In 2020, Capriccio was shortlisted for the fiction prize in the NT Chief Minister’s book awards. It is available from all online booksellers, or in a new hardcopy edition from Harry Hartog’s bookshop, Bondi Junction.

Other talented contributors to this site will have new posts up soon. Keep checking!


February 2020


by Babette Smith

Recently, Professor Anne Twomey took a swipe at family historians, telling ABC broadcaster James Valentine,”Yeah, they’ll give you the file of great uncle Bert and His war record and all that sort of stuff, so they do the genealogy or whatever, where there’s no controversy.”

Obviously, she has not shared my expereince of seeing hundreds of family historians digest the most startling, even upsetting information about their ancestors.

My forthcoming book, Defiant Voices, on Australia’s women convicts, has led me to pull together the research of hundreds of historians who have investigated female convicts over the last 30 years. It’s made me reflect deeply on the work we have done since A Cargo of Women was published in 1988.

That book started as family history, but transcended the genre when I decided to research all 100 women who were on board the ship Princess Royal with my ancestor.

The received wisdom then was that you couldn’t reconstruct convict lives. So no one tried. Tasmanian records were thought to be more complete, but any attempt to personalise them had been strongly resisted. Demands from family historians forced change. For Cargo I was opening files that hadn’t been touched since the 19th century, particularly in the Colonial Secretary correspondence. I had to think like the 19th century bureaucrats to find what I was looking for. That’s why the primary sources bibliography in Cargo is so extensive. It was designed as a trail for others to follow. And they did.

Situating my ancestor Susannah Watson among 99of her peers, I aimed to be scholarly but readable.

Susannah’s story by itself could not sustain a book. Too many gaps in what I could find out about her, even with the discovery of her letters. These came to light because a descendant from her daughter in England wrote to to an Australian newspaper, The Shoalhaven News, which she mentioned in a letter was founded by her Australian son (my great-grandfather). Like me, the English descendant had no idea that Susannah was a convict. To him, at that stage, she was just someone who ‘dropped off’ his family tree. He nearly fell over when I rang him at home in Nottingham. Subsequently he told me he remembered photos of his mother with diggers in slouch hats which were taken during WWI.

As soon as I broadened my search to all 100 women, it became plain that I had something fresh and significant to say about them. I approached Doug Howie, Managing Director of UNSW Press in late 1986 and he confirmed that it would make a book that would interest him. I threw up my job as National Marketing Manager for the Hoyts Corporation and spent all of 1987 writing it.

Essentially the structure of Cargo is cross-hatched – a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, which was Susannah’s story, intersected by the issues important to female convicts which were revealed by my research.

The search for individuals caused a significant methodological shift from statistical sampling that once dominated convict research. Cargo of Women proved a methodolgical pivot in terms of sampling the convict archive by the boatload, as did combining archives with family history. This sampling method has been replicated over and over by family historians and academics alike, here and overseas.

I approached the material with the feminist historians of the Seventies ringing in my ears – and as a committed feminist myself. I expected to find case studies that confirmed feminist arguments. Instead, I found that tracking individuals usually contradicted them. Discovering letters writtien by my previoulsy unknown convict ancestor impost a valuable discipline on my interpretation. In feminist theory, she was a classic female victim. However, her letters revealed that she didn’t see it that way: she told her daughter that transportation to New South Wales was the best thing that happened to her. Ever since, I’ve asked myself over and over as I write, what would the convict think of this, how would they have experienced it?

Focus on the personal and the ordinary has changed interpretaiton and perspective, probably more so in Australia than any other country.

Family interpretation is based on knowledge, often imperfect, of the generations of a family their locations. As many family historians have discovered, the errors and omissions can be as significant as what is recalled.

Family interpretation is influenced by family documents, pictures, artefacts, and family anecdotes. Sometimes actual memory plays a part. Family history has “illustrated” Australian history in a way those people who scorned family history in the 1970s and 1980s never anticipated. It has provided the “colour” that for many decades Australians claimed their history lacked.

Family historians discovered new sources – and brought mass pressure for their digitisation. Not just new archives but new persoanl sources with wider signiicance. The letters from my convict ancestor are one example – convict opinion, particularly women’s opinion, is rare. Thanks to family historians, photos of convict women have emerged, as well as photos of adminstrators who ran the female factories, and magistrates who judged the prisoners.

Family histories can contribute to wider issues too. To me, there is a great public role awaiting family historians of all kinds. We all know there can be no true Reconciliation without a vast shift in historical consciousness. My research indicate that will only succeed if it is fair to both sides. As historians, we need to support the Uluru Statement from the Heart while advocating a balanced view that respects European and multicultural history too.

Some of you may know that I earn my living as a mediator. No doubt this shapes my conviction that historians should not ‘navigate’ conflicting versions but mediate between the two sides in this issue. Use public talks in halls and via the media, as well as written papers and books. Grace Karskens has made a great start with her book The Colony. Paul Irish’s work, In Plain View, is a significant further step. Family hisotrian Lyn Stewart’s book Blood Revenge is an outstanding contribution. Further publications by Aboriginal family hisotrians wil also be very significant to this important public issue.

copyright 2020 BABETTE SMITH

The full version of this paper can be found at