Women on the edge: The inmates of Tasmania's Cascades Female Factory

The notorious Port Arthur on the Tasman Peninsula might be most commonly associated with Tasmania's convict history but the largely untold story of female convicts has been brought to life with the reopening of the Cascades Female Factory in South Hobart.

Ten minutes from the city centre and under the shadow of Kunanyi (Mount Wellington), the new $5 million History and Interpretation Centre is on the site of the original prison where women and girls were housed after being transported, generally for crimes of poverty. They were then assigned duties which could take up to 12 hours labour a day behind the high stone walls in the sunless site dubbed "The Valley of the Shadow of Death".

The women were divided by class and their physical and personality traits noted, with inscriptions such as "face slightly pockpitted" and "deceitful but orderly". First-class women were employed as cooks and those deemed to be in the crime class were sentenced to the washtub. Marriage was seen as being key to women's reformation.

At the already World Heritage-listed site, the centre includes First Nations stories of Palawa and photographic installations featuring contemporary women and their connection to the site via ancestral links in a state where half the population is believed to have convict ancestry.

However a visit to the factory is far from bleak. It gives voice to the camaraderie and friendships fostered among the women and girls, including the Flash Mob named for the "flash" clothes they wore in violation of clothing regulations and who were part of a subculture of rebellion and contraband trade.

A daily on-site performance, "The Proud and the Punished", examines the lives of six historical characters at the factory, including that of Sarah Mason, a petty criminal sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing a pair of boots.

"You might think that living inside these walls inside these rules would break a girl. But that only goes to show you don't know me because ever since my early days growing up with the hardest of the hard and the poorest of the poor it's been the songs in here that have kept me going," Mason's character says.

"In the belly of the Aurora and the darkness of the ship that carried us away from our loves towards our terrors in the middle of waves that tossed us like snowflakes in a gust of wind, we sang. Every woman in one voice because that is the only thing they couldn't take away from us hard as though they tried."

The Cascades Female Factory is open daily and includes a new self-guided audio tour.

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Entry $25 (adults) $10 (concession, children under six free) $60 (family). Free entry for Port Arthur Historic Site Ticket of Leave passes.

See femalefactory.org.au

Jane Reddy travelled as a guest of the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority and Tourism Tasmania.

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