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.

PENELOPE NELSON

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