Ross Female Factory Site, built in the early 1840's as a probation station for male convicts working on the road gangs , incarcerated female convicts from 1848 to 1855. It was one of four female factories established in Tasmania. The name, "Female Factory" was abbreviated from the British institutional title "Manufactory", and referred to the prisons' role as a Work House. 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 only remaining building still standing, the Overseer's Cottage, contains a display on the history of this unique convict site, including a model of the Female Factory in 1851. Although little architecture remains above the ground, Ross Factory is the most archaeologically intact female convict site in Australia.
As the ‘interior’ became more settled and the towns along the main road from Hobart to Launceston grew in size, the number of convicts assigned and hired to masters in these areas increased markedly. It was often the more recalcitrant prisoners who were assigned to service in the ‘interior’, those who were continually found drunk and disorderly in Hobart and Launceston or those who were continually absent without leave or absconded. It was believed that there were less distractions for these convicts in the country areas and so they were less likely to misbehave. However, misbehave they did and the authorities recognized the need for a place of punishment and hiring for female convicts in the interior. The chain gang station at Ross was chosen as the site for the last female factory to be built in Van Diemen’s Land. Being on the road from HobartTown to Launceston, the factory could also act as a stopover place for prisoners being moved between the 2 largest towns.
The establishment was designed to be multi-purpose—it would act not only as a female factory, but also as a probation station, hiring depot, lying-in hospital, nursery and overnight station. It opened in March 1848. Ross Female Factory had some advantages over the other factories. It was built in the dry climate of the midlands and, being in the country, the air was fresher. Thus, there was not the problem of dampness causing illness as occurred at Cascades Female Factory in particular. Also, because the factory was built when the female convict population was at its peak, it did not experience the problems of overcrowding that the other 4 factories did. This also meant that the nursery was not overcrowded. Another benefit to the prisoners was that the Superintendent was also a medical doctor—Dr William John Irvine. As a result of these advantages, the infant mortality rate at Ross Female Factory was low, especially compared to the rates at the Cascades and Launceston factories. However, the rations were still meager and hunger drove some prisoners to dishonorable acts. In January 1852, Caroline Rankin, who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter at the factory 9 months previously, was charged with ‘appropriating the children’s food’. In August 1850, Eleanor Onions, had been charged with ‘having meal bread and potatoes improperly in her possession’.
When the prisoners arrived at Ross Female Factory, usually by foot with a guard or by coach without a guard, they were made to take a bath and issued with prison clothing. The clothing consisted of: a jacket, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoes, a cap, a shift, a handkerchief, a petticoat and an apron. These items were made from wool, calico or flannel. The women were then assigned to the appropriate ward—crime class, probation pass holders or nursery. The probation system, which replaced the 'inequalities' of assigning convicts to private settlers in 1841, was designed to promote the passage of men and women from convict to reputable citizen. Their lives were ordered by authority, work and surveillance, Religion and classification into classes were the keys to this passage.
For almost a decade and a half the unwieldy and often reformed probation system was in operation at Ross. Despite numerous changes, the station retained a basic form which graphically illustrates the rather simple ritual of transformation through which probationers passed. The station reached its ultimate form in the early 1850s, when it housed female convicts. The functional and symbolic patterns of the gaol are as self-evident today as they would have been to the women incarcerated here. After moving within the high stone walls of the entrance, a woman convict left everyday society. In the first stage of her transformation, she would physically turn to the left, into the crime class wards and yard, where she would serve the initial six months of her sentence. The 'Dead House', a mortuary, was in this range of rooms. At the rear of the factory, elevated on a platform above the surrounding yard, was the chapel. All the probationers were released from their cells and wards to attend services in this building. The 'solitary apartments', solitary confinement cells, marking the results of bad behavior, were below the chapel, emphasizing their position in relation to God and authority. In the middle of the compound stood the large nurseries and crime class work rooms. In the nurseries were the new-born children of the convict women. The birth of a child within the factory ushered the mother back to crime class for six more months. Nearing the end of her transformation, the women reached the pass holders wards, just to the right of the entrance. The hospital was also located here. At this end of the process of transformation, the factory opens to include service buildings and access to the surrounding countryside. Quarters for staff (the present cottage) were on high ground in the north-west corner, outside and above the female factory and the confining symmetry of the main buildings. In a position to guard this process constables were resident across the street from the main gate.
Indications of resistance by the women to their confinement are common: they directly attacked staff, formed illicit lesbian relationships and possessed and distributed contraband. Early in 1854 Elizabeth Clark was confined at the Ross Factory for a term of one year. (Her offence was 'actual intercourse' in a public street.) Her sentence was later extended by two months for 'smoking' and having 'a pot of tea'; convicts were not permitted to possess either item. A crime class prisoner with tobacco or tea would need to procure these items from others in the gaol. There were several distinct areas within the factory where illegal transactions could take place. Communal areas, and in particular the divisions between yards, offered such places. The material remains of these activities, in the form of worn paths and small artifacts, still exist below the surface.
The activities of staff at the factory were also constricted by the rules drawn-up to order the lives of women convicts. They too sought ways to circumvent their constraints. Mr. and Mrs. Imrie performed the duties of Asst. Superintendent and Asst. Matron at Ross for three years. During their employment, both were accused of misconduct and were frequently in conflict with Superintendent Irvine and his replacement, Superintendent Hall. Accusations against the Imries included misappropriating articles from the stores and receiving kickbacks from local suppliers. They were eventually sacked. Many members of staff were dismissed or removed from office under suspicion, including Irvine, Hall, Asst. Superintendent O'Brien (before he even began work), Constable Taylor, and Constable Davies (whose wife was a 'Prisoner of the Crown'). In 1851 the gatekeeper, Constable Macdonald, was dismissed for allowing the town surveyor within the factory without prior authorization. Questions surround many aspects of the female convict system: questions concerning connivance between staff and convicts, forms of contraband and currency within the factory, the numerous pregnancies of inmates and the presence of unauthorized male visitors.
The factory closed in January 1855 and the Police Department took over the site, though the Roman Catholic Church used the Chapel for services. Some mounds in a sheep paddock and the Superintendent’s cottage are all that is left of the factory today, though recent archaeological digs at the site have been unearthing the plan of the site. The most recent dig revealed the foundations of the nursery ward.