Convict women of Van Diemen's Land

They are laundresses from Leitrim, housemaids from Manchester, Wigan and London, and women who worked in skilled trades …


Thirty-year-old convict Mary Ann Williams could read and write and had been employed as a house servant and shoe-binder. She came from Battersea in London and was transported to Australia in 1848 for 10 years for the crime of ‘stealing money from the person’.

It wasn’t the first crime she had been convicted of — her several prior convictions all involved stealing money or goods. She had been known by at least five different surnames and had several tattoos on her arms.  

These details about Mary Ann’s life can be gleaned from a newly digitised list, or indent, of convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Of around 24,000 women transported to Australia as convicts, some 12,500 were sent to Van Diemen’s Land – an additional gaol from the early 1800s for convicts shipped to New South Wales.

Once New South Wales suspended transportation in 1840, all convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, until transportation ceased in 1853.

Hobart Town, Vandiemen's Land, George William Evans, 1828, detail
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Before the days of photographic mugshots, the authorities relied on physical descriptions to identify convicts. The earliest indents recorded basic details including age, height and weight, facial features, complexion and any distinctive marks. Over time, additional personal information was recorded, such as prior convictions, education, religion, family details, and judgements about ‘character’ and conduct.

A selection of handwritten Tasmanian convict indents (also called ‘indentures’) have been recently digitised by the Library and transcribed by online volunteers for easier access for researchers.

While they are invaluable as a source of information for genealogists and historians, these government records can also be highly evocative in their personal descriptions. They offer a glimpse into the lives of thousands of women caught up in poverty, desperation and crime in Britain in the mid-19th century.

Records of female convicts transported to Van Diemen's Land, 1844–1852
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They are laundresses from Leitrim, housemaids from Manchester, Wigan and London, and women who worked in skilled trades such as weaving and shoemaking.

The details of their lives were dutifully recorded by government officials whose spelling skills varied. Mary Ann’s hometown of Battersea, for example, was recorded as ‘Batursey’.

These records identified the convict women as pock-marked or ‘much freckled’, as having a high forehead, pugged nose or fresh complexion. Their tattoos included heart symbols, ‘forget-me-nots’ and names of lost loves.

Mary Ann’s tattoos told stories of past lovers or perhaps family members: ‘“Slaney” on right arm; “W Discon, I love”; heart [on] Left arm; “Lewis”, nearly illegible, right arm’.

The women’s behaviour while serving their sentences was also recorded, with many women punished with hard labour, or sent to the house of corrections or female factory.

Five years into her sentence, Mary Ann Williams received nine months hard labour as punishment for ‘having improper connection with a man’. Her ticket of leave was revoked. Two years later she received a conditional pardon and, after another two years, she finally received her freedom at the end of her sentence.

When we read her indent, we can see the toll that poverty, transportation and harsh living took on Mary Ann. At the age of 53 she attempted suicide, described as an ‘attempt to destroy herself’. Two years later, Mary Ann Williams’ death was registered in Hobart. It is not known how she died.

Elise Edmonds, Senior Curator, Research & Discovery.