This thesis is a study of 3804 female convicts transported to the British penal colony
of Van Diemen's Land between January 1820 and December 1839. Research has
involved extensive use of the convict transportation, colonial office, convict
department and colonial court records, of colonial newspapers, almanacks and the
diaries and accounts produced by colonists.
The thesis begins with a critical overview of the historical literature on crime and the
'criminal class', and then proceeds to examine historical accounts of the female
convicts. The existing literature is dominated by a series of starkly oppositional
images of convict women: as 'hardened criminal'; 'damned whore'; 'poor victim'; and
'moral wife'. It is argued that these have produced a falsely polarised historiographical
debate which has become an obstacle to further research. A number of key historical
assumptions about the colonial experience of the convict women have, in particular,
remained untested and unchallenged.
Chapters 2 to 4 focus on the pre-transportation experience of the women. The
relationships between crime, class, gender, poverty and social order in early
nineteenth-century Britain are examined. The existing literature assumes erroneously
that the 'criminal' represents the antithesis of the 'worker'. A composite picture of the
convict women as criminal workers is presented by examining the links between
occupation, poverty, crime and prostitution in early nineteenth-century Britain.
Chapter 2 uses convict indent and appropriation list data to examine the crimes and
criminal records of the women. Chapter 3 analyses the relationship between crime,
gender and social order in the nineteenth century. Contemporaries perceived crime as
a potent source of social disorder and a threat to work-discipline. Female crime was
further regarded as a threat to the gender order. The woman criminal was perceived
as a deviant against her gender. The chapter asks to what extent proletarian women
were able to use crime and prostitution to acquire the material means to subvert
dominant-class ideologies of gender. An evaluation of the 'human capital' of the
women is conducted in chapter 4. Female convicts were a highly valuable source of
'human capital' for the colony. Their multiple skills and evident work experience
conflicts both with their criminal-class image and with the contemporary notion that
'skill' was masculine.
Chapters 5-7 focus on the experience of convict women in Van Diemen's Land. The
structure of the female convict labour market is examined. These chapters argue that,
contrary to the historical consensus, colonial demand for female convict labour was
high, and frequently outstripped supply. On the basis of this, chapter 7 argues that
female convict workers were far from powerless. They manipulated the value of their
labour-power and bargained successfully within the workplace for improved
conditions of work and leisure.