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Ross Female Factory


An overview report Eleanor C. Casella, Project Director Ross Factory Archaeology Project July 1998

Since November 1995, Eleanor Casella (Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley) has directed excavations of this mid-nineteenth century female convict site in Ross, Tasmania. Built in the early 1840's, this probation station incarcerated female convicts from 1847 to 1854, when the Transportation System ceased operation. Today, the Ross Female Factory is a protected Historic Site, managed by the Parks & Wildlife Service and the Tasmanian Wool Centre of Ross. Open to the public, the Overseer's Cottage contains a display on the history of this unique convict site, including a model of the Female Factory in 1851.

The Ross Factory Archaeology Project has enjoyed strong support from the University of Tasmania, the Parks and Wildlife Service, the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery (Launceston, Tasmania), and the Tasmanian Wool Centre of Ross. Community volunteers, regional and avocational archaeologists, local school teachers, Aboriginal Heritage Officers, and university students from both Tasmania and the Australian mainland participated in excavations as part of the Ross Factory Archaeology Project. Resulting data includes a topographic survey of the "Female Factory" convict site at the Ross township, photogrammetrical recording of the remaining sandstone cottage, and excavation of three areas within the prison. This preliminary season was the first international research project to be conducted on an historic-era site in Australia.


Britain began transporting convicts to New South Wales in 1788. After the establishment of Van Diemen's Land in 1803, Britain began transporting convicts to this island colony. Over 12,000 women came to Tasmania over the 50 year Convict Era. Women were typically sentenced for periods of 7 or 14 years, usually for petty theft from their employers in England. In the penal colony, women were either assigned as domestic servants to free settlers, or were incarcerated within the Female Factories. This name was abbreviated from the British institutional title "Manufactory," and referred to the prisons' role as a Work House. While incarcerated within a Female Factory, the inmates worked at laundry and sewing brought in on contract from the local community. Convicts were divided into three classes:

  • The Punishment Class: sentenced to periods of "separate treatment" in the Solitary Cells.
  • The Crime Class: incarcerated within the prison.
  • The Hiring Class: given privileged positions within the Factory until they were assigned as domestic servants to local properties.

The Ross Female Factory also housed the babies of convict women in a Nursery Ward. An enforced early weaning age and unhygenic conditions resulted in very high infant mortality rates within the Factories.

Four Female Factories were established in Tasmania:

  1. The Cascade Factory, Degraves Street, South Hobart (1829): this Factory is an Historic Site managed by the Parks & Wildlife Service. An interpretation display is provided for visitors.
  2. The Launceston Factory (1832): this Factory was demolished in the 1930s, and built-over by Launceston College. The well, and an original sandstone perimeter wall remain.
  3. The George Town Factory (1829): this Factory was occupied for only a short period in a house rented from a local clergyman. After the Launceston Factory was opened, George Town was closed.
  4. The Ross Female Factory (1847): this Factory was adapted from an 1842 Road Gang Station built for male convicts. Although little architecture remains above the ground, Ross Factory is the most archaeologically intact female convict site in Australia.


Preliminary results of the archaeological excavations have provided some new images of daily life experiences for female convicts at the Ross site. Summer field seasons in 1995 & 1997 opened 105 square meters, excavating three areas within the Ross Female Factory: the Crime Class, the demoted Solitary Cells, and the promoted Hiring Class. These three areas represented the three stages of reform that female convicts passed through during their incarceration. A small portion of the Assistant Superintendent's Quarters was also excavated. Artifacts and architectural remains discovered through archaeological excavation are being used to compare daily life within different parts of this prison.

Area A: The Crime Class

Sandstone foundations of the original dormitory structure were rapidly uncovered. These two walls were approximately 90 cm wide and 50 cm high, running along a north-south axis through the excavation trench. Quarried from a local source, these walls were constructed of roughly cut sandstone bonded with lime mortar. The high frequency of plaster washed mortar recovered from both interior and exterior sides of these foundation walls suggest the dormitories were frequently whitewashed, probably to improve the general cleanliness of this penal station.

Archaeological evidence for floorboards was also recovered, in the form of three sandstone support tiers, two running parallel to both dormitory foundation walls, and one midway through the structure. The archaeological presence of these joist supports correlates with documentary evidence for significant modifications to the structure after 1847.

According to historic documents, floorboards were installed into the convict dormitories in preparation for accommodation of female convicts. This modification of interior floors means that all objects recovered from excavation of underfloor deposits relate directly to the female convicts. These artifacts demonstrate the presence of illicit materials such as non-uniform buttons, alcohol bottle fragments, kaolin tobacco pipes, and reworked iron scrap, possibly functioning as makeshift weaponry.

On the exterior of the Crime Class Dormitory, the original muster yard flooring consisted of highly compacted dirt, pebbles and cobbles. This courtyard also contained an extensive drain system, constructed in two parts. The upper course was an intricately carved sandstone spoon drain.

According to 1848 plans for Factory alterations, an entrance porch was added to the Crime Class Dormitory in preparation for incarceration of female convicts. The course of spoon drain outlined the exterior of this structure. Brick and sandstone foundations of this entrance porch were also uncovered, locating the exact entrance to the Crime Class Dormitory. A rectangular gap in the foundation wall marked the original location of the sandstone door sill, a structural element probably robbed from the Dormitory and recycled into some other local building after abandonment of the prison.

Given the substantial nature of this sandstone drain feature, it is remarkable that no mention of it exists in any historical documentation. Although most other architectural modifications appear in lists of funding allocations, in architectural plans, or in Superintendents' reports, no such documentation has been discovered for this feature.

Area B: The Hiring Class

Originally begun as a one meter square test trench, Area B was eventually extended to 40 square meters, sampling from both the Hiring Class Dormitory and the adjoining Assistant Superintendent's Quarters. Architecturally, the Hiring Class dormitory proved to be very similar to the Crime Class. Foundation walls were constructed from courses of cut sandstone and rubble pack, and sandstone floorboard supports were uncovered within the structure. A dirt and pebble pack muster yard lay directly east of the Hiring Class, and remains of two upper sandstone spoon drains were located on the immediate exterior of the Dormitory structure.

Excavation trenches in Area B also sampled from the Assistant Superintendent's Quarters. Delineating the entrance to this structure was a pathway of cut sandstone flags, an architectural feature that can be interpreted as a status marker within the Factory. Given the consistently inadequate supply of shoes for female inmates, winter musters within the pebble-pack courtyard would be cold, wet and muddy experiences.. The presence of a sandstone pathway for access to and from the Assistant Superintendent's Quarters must have communicated a hierarchical status for parts of the convict prison.

In aerial photographs, the sandstone flagged entranceway cannot be seen. This architectural feature overlaid the under barrel boxdrain of Area B, and segments were lifted during excavation. Excavation of this feature recovered numerous artifacts, most significantly including two ferrous musket powder flasks. Capped with a copper-alloy self-measuring release valve spout, these pear-shaped artifacts were typical from 1750 through the late 19th century. Unfortunately, heavy oxidization of the ferrous body of these artifacts has obscured any distinguishing or decorative marks that might have once identified the flasks.

In contrast to the convict dormitories, the Assistant Superintendent's Quarters were of brick construction. Artifacts recovered from within this area demonstrated occupants of this area had greater access to goods and materials. Ceramic and glass artifacts recovered from the Hiring and Crime Class Dormitories were predominantly tiny fragments of cheap, mass produced plates, cups and bottles, often the slightly defective factory "seconds" shipped-out from England for use in Van Diemen's Land convict establishments. However, those household artifacts recovered in the Assistant Superintendent's Quarters were far more substantial fragments of colorful transfer-printed crockery and decorated drinking glasses.

Two copper-alloy "trade tokens" from mid-nineteenth century Hobart businesses were also recovered, indicating a difference in access to the growing colonial economy. While incarcerated within the prison, female convicts were completely dependent on either provisions provided by the Convict Department, or on illicit tobacco, grog and food smuggled into and around the prison through underground trade networks. Whether or not the Superintendent Staff turned a blind-eye towards the Factory "black market," these officials had legitimate access to goods and services of their choice, as reflected in the trade tokens.

The only intact structure remaining from the Ross Female Factory, the impressive Overseer's Cottage, stands less than 10 meters from the beginning of the Hiring Class foundations. From 1938 to 1974, this structure housed the Knowles family, longtime residents of Ross. Overlying Factory related artifacts were substantial deposits of 20th century artifacts, primarily related to agricultural and domestic uses of the site by the Knowles family. This assemblage of recent artifacts did not appear to impact earlier convict-related deposits; however, the materials were systematically recovered as part of the Ross Factory Archaeology Project. While this recent archaeological assemblage is unrelated to female convict occupation of the Ross site, it derives some cultural significance from its reflection of how the local Ross community developed, and how Tasmanian rural life changed over the 20th century. These artifacts included a cast-iron toy gun, iron food cans, wallaby and sheep bones, a copper-alloy faucet, wire and wrought iron nails, fencing wire, bases and finishes from both clear and blue glass medicine bottles, silver-plated table cutlery, late 19th century kaolin clay pipes, the left leg of a bisque clay baby doll, and a rather striking pink-on-white molded glass vase.

Area C: The Solitary Cells

Profile of Area C - Solitary Cells

The Ross Factory Solitary Cells are highly significant as the only remaining separate treatment cells built explicitly for punishment of female convicts. Architecturally, the Solitary Cells were designed to maximize the isolation of inmates. Rough cut sandstone walls, approximately 50 cm thick, contained women undergoing "separate treatment," minimizing sound transfer and communication between cells. Archaeological excavations determined individual cells were approximately 1.3 meters wide by 2 meters long, or roughly 4 by 6 feet, a space just large enough to accommodate a single inmate. Period architectural plans suggest the cells were entered from the northern exterior. Archaeological evidence for the location of cell doors remains ambiguous, with post-Factory period recycling and demolition removing most of the structure, including all door sills or stairways which might have existed.

Unlike structures in the main Factory compound, the Solitary Cells contained packed earthen floors. Furthermore, these floors appear to be significantly lower than the cell doors. Floor features underlay 35 cm to 50 cm of demolition debris and structural collapse. This evidence suggests that entry into a Solitary Cell required a descent of more than half a meter, suggesting interior stairs once existed for each cell. Regardless of the height of the original doors, to undergo "separate treatment," convict women descended into a cramped, darkened, silent cell for up to three weeks of isolation. This spatial movement can be interpreted as a metaphor of punishment and atonement, with the stigmatized woman descending into her solitary cell, reforming through silent prayer and contemplation, and ascending upwards to rejoin the general penal community once her sentenced period of separate treatment had been served.

Archaeological deposits within the Ross Factory Solitary Cells reflect constant power struggles between Factory inmates and guards. Experiencing the degradation and isolation of architecturally enforced "separate treatment," female convicts appear to have minimized their disadvantage through importation of forbidden luxuries -- archaeological evidence of tobacco, alcohol and increased food rations were recovered in each excavated cell. At some point after 1851, a fire occurred within the Solitary Cells, concentrated in the southern half of one cell, but affecting at least the two adjoining cells. Since documents from other Female Factories suggest female convicts committed arson to create public spectacles of violent confrontation, the burning of the Ross Solitary Cells could be interpreted as a similar event. Provoked by such brazen disobedience, and saddled with a semi-functional cellblock, Ross Factory authorities responded by restoring the structure. The Solitary Cells were relaid with a second floor layer of hard clayey-silt. These new earthen floors were less easily adapted, and more easily inspected, for caches of forbidden materials.

However, power struggles continued. The new floors, probably accompanied by tightened penal regulations, were partially successful disciplinary tactics, and the frequency of these "luxuries" appearing in the Solitary Cells decreased. However, the trade did continue, and archaeological evidence accumulated within the second floor feature. The material residues of these insubordinate activities were both scattered through the new floor, and concentrated inside a small pit dug within the western cell.


Ultimately, this unique archaeological collection of artifacts and architectural data will be curated and displayed through the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery of Launceston, Tasmania. A display on "Archaeology at the Ross Female Factory" will also be developed for the Tasmanian Wool Centre of Ross, and integrated into their local history museum. This display include archaeological information on the various occupation periods of the site, primarily focusing on the Female Factory Period, but also including materials from the Knowles family occupation of the site.

For Further Reading

A Report from the Ross Female Factory From U.C. Berkeley, Department of Anthropology. URL: http://www.qal.berkeley.edu/arf/newsletter/3.2/ross.html.

Bartlett, Anne 1994 The Launceston Female Factory. Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Papers & Proceedings 41(2):114-124.

Brand, Ian 1990 The Convict Probation System: Van Diemen's Land 1839-1854 Hobart: Blubber Head Press.

Casella, Eleanor 1996 Ross Factory Archaeology Project 1995: an interim report Unpublished archaeology report available through the Parks & Wildlife Service of Tasmania, Cultural Heritage Branch.

Clark, C. Manning 1962 A History of Australia. Vol. 1: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press.

Daniels, Kay 1998 Convict Women Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Damousi, Joy 1997 Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Foucault, Michel 1977 Discipline and Punish London: Penguin Books.

Hughes, Robert 1988 The Fatal Shore London: Pan Books Limited.

Kerr, James 1984 Design for Convicts: An account of design for convict establishments in the Australian Colonies during the transportation era. Sydney: Library of Australian History.

Oxley, Deborah 1996 Convict Maids: The Forced Migration of Women to Australia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robinson, Portia 1993 The Women of Botany Bay Ringwood (Vic): Penguin Books Australia Limited.

Scripps, Lindy & Clark, Julia 1991 "The Ross Female Factory, Tasmania" Unpublished history report available through the Parks & Wildlife Service of Tasmania, Cultural Heritage Branch.

Smith, Babette 1988 A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson & the Convicts of the Princess Royal Sydney: New South Wales University Press.

Summers, Anne 1975 Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia Penguin Books Australia, Limited.