During both the assignment period and the probation period, female convicts were placed in service, both in Hobart and, what was called, the Interior. The Interior could include all other areas of Van Diemen's Land including, at times, the extremely remote locations of Macquarie Harbour and coastal islands. 

During the assignment period, female convicts were assigned to employers as servants. They were allowed wages which depended on whether they were being issued with government rations including slop clothing. For female convict assigned servants in private contracts, the wages were £7 per year for the convict's common neccessities - rations and board - and  £5 per year if receiving government rations including slop clothing.  Convicts in Government employment had no allowance of wages but were provided with rations and provisions.

During the probation period, female convicts were hired to employers as probation pass-holders. Women were paid wages—they were engaged to service for a period of no more than 12 months and engaged for no less than £7 per year in wages.

During both convict periods, many female convicts absconded from service. Some, but by no means all, female convicts were abused in service.


Hiring Regulations

There were several Acts and Regulations evolving over time to meet the challenges of hiring convict labour in Van Diemen's Land. The most significant and comprehensive was The Regulations for hiring Probation Pass holders in Van Diemen's Land issued by the Convict Department, 1st July, 1844.

+ - REGULATIONS for hiring Probation Pass holders in Van Diemen's Land


REGULATIONS for hiring Probation Pass holders in Van Diemen's Land.

Convict Department, 1st July, 1844.

1.      Pass-holders are divided into three Classes.

In respect to Pass-holders of the 1st Class, the consent of the Lieutenant-Governor must be obtained by the master previously to the completion of any engagement or contract with such Pass-holder. In the case of Pass-holders of the 2nd and 3rd Classes, there will be no interference previously to the contract being entered into, except that such persons as have not already had Convicts in their employment must obtain permission from this office to that effect.

2.      All contracts must be according to the accompanying form, and must be written or printed on foolscap paper. Blank forms, if required, may be obtained at the Depots, Gangs, and Factories, on payment of sixpence for each form.

3.      Every engagement will be for a fixed term of not less than a month, but may be terminated before the expiration of that period by ten days previous notice in writing of an intention so to do, given either by the master to the Comptroller-General, or by the Comptroller-General on behalf of the Pass-holder to the master; which notice must specify the Depot, Barrack, or Factory to which such Pass-holder will, in accordance with the 6th Section of these regulations, be sent. It may be here observed, that the contract being made with the Comptroller-General, the Pass-holder has no power to break the engagement thus entered into by giving or receiving notice personally. The master may, if he prefer it, pay a sum equal to ten days' wages to the Registrar of the Convict Department, in lieu of giving such notice. An engagement will also be annulled by any higher indulgence than a Probation Pass being granted to the convict for whose services it may have been made. A summary power, moreover, rests with the Lieutenant-Governor to cancel any such contract or engagement at His Excellency's pleasure. Should a Pass-holder agree to remain in any service after the expiration of the term specified in the con-tract, a fresh contract must previously to that period be transmitted to this office for approval.

4.      No engagement to be annulled, as a matter of course, by any misconduct on the part of the Pass-holder; but in all cases where the master is desirous of cancelling the engagement, on account of misconduct, the circumstances must be reported to the Comptroller-General, who will lay the case before the Lieutenant-Governor, and communicate His Excellency's decision to the master.

5.      No engagement is to be voidable, at the pleasure of the employer, on account of the inability of the Pass-holder for whose service it is entered into to perform any particular description of work, of which such Pass-holder may have at the time of hiring professed to be capable : such cases must be reported, if the master be desirous of cancelling the contract, in the manner directed as to misconduct. Pass-holders will, however, be liable to be punished by a Magistrate for misconduct in so misrepresenting their capacities.

6.      Whenever such engagements are terminated, in the manner specified in the three preceding Sections, the male Pass-holders, if Probationers, are immediately to be sent by the masters under a pass to the nearest hiring Probation Depot, as the case maybe,—if old Convicts, to the Prisoners' Barracks at Oatlands, Hobart Town, or Launceston, which-ever may be most convenient to their residences. Female Pass-holders are to be returned, under proper charge, to the Factory at Hobart Town or Launceston, whichever may be nearest.

7.      Passholders of the 3rd, or highest, Class will receive from their masters the whole amount of their wages ; those of the 2nd Class two-thirds of that amount ; and those of the 1st, or lowest, Class one-half the amount.

8.      The proportion of wages thus kept back from Pass-holders of the 1st and 2nd Classes must be paid quarterly by their employers to the Registrar of the Convict Department, to be paid by him into the Savings' Bank at the Derwent Bank, Hobart Town, on account of such Pass-holders respectively. If the service be terminated before the end of a quarter, then whatever amount of such proportion may be due must be paid at the time of the Pass-holder's discharge.

9.      The wages payable to Pass holders themselves may be paid either weekly, monthly, or quarterly, as agreed on ; and the whole amount due must be paid to them at the time of their being discharged, or to the Registrar when the engagement is terminated whilst the Pass-holder is under magisterial sentence. In the event of this not being done, or of the regulated portion of wages as before mentioned not being paid to the Registrar, the employers will render themselves liable to be proceeded against legally for the same.

No wages will, however, be demandable for any portion of the term of hiring during which the Pass-holder may have been under punishment.

10.  Masters paying Pass-holders of the 1st and 2nd Classes the proportion of wages required by Section 8 to be paid to the Registrar will, not-withstanding such payment to the Pass-holders themselves, be called upon to fulfil the regulations, by paying to the Registrar whatever proportion of wages should, according to their classes, be placed in the Savings' Bank, notwithstanding the amount so overpaid to them. But when a Passholder shall be indebted to any master for money so overpaid, or for articles supplied by him at the Pass-holder's request, such master may pay himself, by deducting the amount from the proportion of wages which, in accordance with the regulations, may be payable to the Pass-holder.

11.  It is to be understood that the sums so paid to the Registrar will be liable to deduction for any claims substantiated by the masters to the satisfaction of the Comptroller-General at the period of the Pass-holders respectively becoming entitled to their savings.

12.  Masters will in every case be required to provide suitable lodging and bedding tor their servants, without making any deduction from their wages on that account. They will also be required to supply their servants with a sufficient quantity of wholesome provisions and soap, according to the following scale of daily Rations:

1 lb. Meat

1 1/2 lbs. Bread, or

1 lb. Bread and 2 lbs.


1 oz. Sugar.

1 oz. Roasted Wheat.

1/2 oz. Soap.

1/s oz. Salt.

Pass-holders having received wages will be liable to be tried for misconduct should they neglect to provide themselves with proper clothing.

13.  Medicine and Medical attendance when requisite must also be provided by the master :but when proper attention has been paid by the master to any Pass-holder who may fall sick in his service, the Comptroller-General will, in cases of protracted illness, recommend that such servant may be received into hospital, and the agreement cancelled.

14.  Pass-holders are to be sent by their masters to the District Master of Pass-holders on the first Sunday of each month, unless exempted by the Comptroller-General.

15.  Whenever there is a place of Worship within two miles of the usual place of work or residence of Pass-holders, they must attend Divine Service at least once every Sunday.

16.  Masters are required to send a written notice to the Comptroller-General of the date of arrival of Pass-holders at their residences to enter upon service, and also the date of departure from their services, immediately on either of such occurrences taking place ; and a similar notice to the Police Magistrate of their several Districts.

17.  Pass-holders in private service are amenable to Convict Law only.

18.  It is to be expressly understood, that the Comptroller-General is not to be considered responsible for any loss or damage occasioned by acts either of omission or commission on the part of the Pass-holders; the remedy of their employers for the same being confined to the mode prescribed in Section 11.

19.  Until an engagement expires, or is terminated in one of the modes hereinbefore specified, the employer will be liable for wages according to the terms of the contract, notwithstanding he may have dismissed the Pass-holder from his service contrary to regulation.

20.  No contract will be invalid on account of any mistake which may be made in inserting the name, ship, number, or class of the Pass-holder for whose services it is entered into, or in omitting any of the three latter particulars, as any errors or omissions of this nature may be corrected by the Comptroller-General, or other proper Officer :provided that in case of any alteration in the class, notice in writing of the class to which the Pass-holder actually belongs be sent to the employer.

21.  Should a Pass-holder be no longer required by any master in whose service he may at the time be employed, and another master be willing to engage him, on the prescribed contract being previously transmitted to the Comptroller-General by the new master, accompanied by a written memorandum from the first employer expressing his consent to the transfer, the Pass-holder maybe allowed to enter into such service pending His Excellency's approval.

22.  In like manner when any engagements are terminated by the prescribed notice, or payment in lieu thereof, the Pass-holders may be hired on their road to the Depot, Barrack, or Factory, as the case may be; provided the prescribed contract be transmitted by the hirer within one week to the Comptroller-General, as directed in the preceding section, for His Excellency's approval.

M. Forster



Female Assigned Servants

The following newspaper article on female convicts in service appeared in The Independent on 25 May 1831 (p.2 c.4). It laments the paucity of female servants in the colony and suggests the building of a female factory in Launceston as the George Town factory is too distant.

+ - Female Assigned Servants


Female Assigned Servants

It is acknowledged on all sides that the greatest hindrance to the comfort of a family in this colony, is found in the difficulty first of procuring and then of keeping female assigned servants. In Launceston, and throughout the country, this evil is felt in, we may almost safely say, a tenfold greater degree than on the other side. Whether this is to be accounted for, by their not being held in such strict surveillance in the factory here—at George town, a distance of FORTY MILES! we mean—as as Hobart Town, or the reluctance on the part of the inhabitants to send away their servants, we cannot say. But it is really a matter of doubt, when a servant is sentenced to be confined in the factory for a breach of good behaviour, whether it is the servant or her mistress that is punished. A case in point—Some time ago, a resident in the country a few miles from town, found it necessary to the peace and confort of his family that one of his female assigned servants should be brought up to town, before the Police bench. The sitting magistrate sentenced her to six months' confinement in the factory. Upon her return from thence, when she was reproved for some misconduct, she replied, "Oh send me to the factory! I had much rather be there than here! Plenty there to eat, and very little to do." According to the representation of some of our correspondents, the women are partly employed in washing, mending, and making clothes for the George Town gentlefolks, J.P.'s, &c. But be this true or false, it is fit that some employment should be found for the numbers of women so—according to our opinions injudiciously, to say the very least possible—confined in factories; but that employment should be stated, and a failure in the performance thereof, unless in case of sickness, should be met with a proportionable punishment. (We do not mean, however, such ridiculously cruel punishments as the cutting off that natural ornament, on the possession of which it is well known women most pride themselves—their long hair, and shaving their heads, and other similar nonsense.) There should be a factory (if such a thingis considered desirable) built within a moderate distance of the principal place for which it is required, the town of Launceston; when there, the inmates whould be classed according to their several characters and grades in crime—they should be rationed, not all alike and equal, but in proportion to the rank of the class to which their merits may entitle them—and some kind of labour, more or less severe, expected from all of them. Bad as many of them undoubtedly are, we are still glad to get them, and consider it a great oversight of the home government, that they send us out so comparatively very few. However, we hope, that the subject will be taken up by the authorities, and some remedy provided for the disadvantage we have pointed out as falling to the lot of those requiring servants of this description.


Absconding From Service

Many female convicts absconded from their masters and mistresses when in service. They were usually apprehended quickly and either returned to their assigned service or to the Crown for punishment, but not always. While the occurrences of absconding were always recorded on Conduct Records, along with the punishments incurred, the reasons behind the absconding were rarely revealed - unless recorded in a court case.

+ - Mary Conroy (per Kinnear, 1848)

On 22 July 1850, Mary Conroy, who arrived on the Kinnear, absconded with two male convicts from the Circular Head district. The following letter was written by Chief Police Magistrate Francis Burgess to the authorities in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne to notify them of their escape. (Ref: ML, CY 3065)

Police Department
Van Diemen's Land
10th August 1850

I have the honor to inform you that the Prisoners of the Crown named in the margin [Thomas Gardiner "Susan", William Whitehouse "Agincourt", Mary Conroy "Kinnear"] absconded from their authorised places of residence viz at Circular Head in this Island and are now illegally at large.

They are supposed to have escaped on the 22 ultimo in the Vessel "Emergency" bound from Circular Head to Melbourne and with a view to their apprehension I enclose Warrants and descriptios of their several persons.

I have the honor to be Sir
Your very obedient servant
(signed) F Burgess

While abuse of female convicts was sometimes reported as a reason for absconding, very little is known about sexual advances and its correlation with female convicts absconding.


Abuse Of Female Servants

Life as a female convict servant was not always easy and the prisoner was not always the one at fault. Most female convicts were given a hard time when they were assigned to work as domestics in households. 

The following anti-transportation article appeared in the Cornwall Chronicle on 26 May 1852 (p.332 c.3).

Prisoner servants and their employers.—In a letter to the H.T. Advertiser, the following is related of the treatment of a servant of this class received from her mistress; it seems to argue the probability, if not certainty, that such cases are more common than is, perhaps, generally supposed[?] or at least admitted; ergo, the fault is not always on the side of the prisoners, and furnishes another proof, if another were necessary, of the necessity for doing away with the white slavery,–called Transporation. "I happened to call on business to the house of a farmer well known to me, not twenty miles from Jerusalem [now Colebrook], when I was much surprised to hear a great altercation within doors, and having frequently been there before, knew all the parties of which the family consisted. I was not, therefore, long in conjecturing from whence the row proceeded. The first expression which caught me was from the mistress, who said "You Irish convict bitch I'll split your head open," and many such expressions were made use of and repeated during the short stay I made. However, I could not help remarking the harsh words made use of, when she turned round upon me. I told her it would be doing an act of justice to report the case in some public journal, just to let people see how many of the unfortunate prisoners (especially women) are treated by persons permitted to have passholders, but who do not know how to behave to them properly. She told me I was not game to publish it in the papers."

Some convict women worked for good employers often staying for long periods of time in the same household, others were not so lucky. Few convict women were brave enough to accuse their employer/master of ill treatment, but Bridget Brew did.  Bridget, a 40-year-old Irish convict, arrived per Maria in 1849. No offences were recorded on her conduct record.   In February 1851, Bridget, a probation passholder in the service of the Reverend John Fereday of George Town, accused her employer of ill treatment in kicking and pushing her.  Though the case was dismissed, Reverend Fereday returned Bridget to the service of the crown immediately afterwards.  Patrick Egan, another convict in Reverend Fereday’s service, verified Bridget’s testimony. Read the transcription of the Lower Court record below:

+ - Bridget Brew (per Maria, 1849)


LC156/1/3 George Town Lower Court Records 1849-1853 DI 76/77/78 28th February 1851 Present Asst Police Magistrate Revd. John Fereday Free to Col 36 yrs <[Superia instruate]> appeared at this office to answer the complaint of Bridget Brew for ill usage Complaint dismissed. 

Bridget Brew sworn states I am a prisoner of the Crown. I am a passholder in the Service of the Revd Mr Fereday at George Town on Wednesday night last about half past seven oclock my Master came home and asked me what was the matter and I said nothing Mrs Fereday then told her Husband that I has said that Mrs Fereday was tipsy  I then said I beg your pardon Madam I never said such thing  My Master than came out and said ‘ You Prisoner of the Crown how dare you say such a thing to Mrs Fereday  My Master then took hold of me by the shoulder and pushed me out of the door and I struck my face in going out my Master then followed me outside and struck me and kicked me and told me to go away My Master struck me on the shoulder and on the head and kicked me on the shin. 

Patrick Egan sworn states I am a prisoner of the Crown and Hold a ticket of leave and in the Service of the Revd Mr Fereday I know the woman present Bridget Brew – She is also in the service of the Revd Mr Fereday I recollect the evening of Wednesday last – Mr Fereday came into the kitchen on that evening and said to Bridget Brew You a Prisoner of the Crown – how dare you insult your Mistress – Mr Fereday then laid hold of her by the neck and gave her a push saying at the same time get out of my house Mr Fereday followed her out into the yard and kicked her

X By the Rev John Fereday I swore that I saw you kick her

X by the Bench It was between seven and eight oclock it was dust I could see very well what I was doing. I was about three yards from Mr Fereday and his servant.

Susan Georgina Marrian Fereday sworn states I live with my papa the Revd Mr Fereday in George Town I knew the woman now present her name is Bridget Brew she has been living in my Fathers service  I recollect the evening of Wednesday last my papa and Mamma had been out on that day – they came home in the evening about seven oclock  I hear my mama saying something to Bridget Brew about an Earing which she had left in the room before she went out soon after his Bridget came into the Dining room and said ‘If they are tipsy let them mind themselves” by this I thought she meant my Papa and Mamma’  I then asked her if she thought Mamma was tipsy and she reply “I don’t know” 

By Bridget Brew You did say what I have stated

LC156/1/3 George Town Lower Court Records 1849-1853 DI 79 28th Feby 1851 Present Asst Police Magistrate Bridget Brew pp Maria 7 yrs 36 neither Charged by her Master the Revd John Fereday with being absent without leave yesterday morning the 27th instant and remaining absent during the day.  Plea Not Guilty. Reprimanded. 

Revd John Fereday sworn states I reside at George Town the prisoner now present is a passholder in my Service  Yesterday morning she absented herself from her Service without any permission and I did not see her afterwards until  about twelve o’clock in the police Office.

Thomas Pilcher sworn states I am the Signalman and reside at George Town I know the prisoner now present  she is in Mr Fereday’s Service – I saw the prisoner leave Mr Feredays house about seven oclock yesterday morning  She had a bundle with her.

By the Bench I saw the prisoner go into the house where Mr Wigmore the District Constable resides – I did not see her go out again – I never saw her afterwards during the day.

DI 80 Bridget Brew pp Maria 7 36 yr neither Returned to the service of the Crown,


Susanna De Vries in her book Strength of Spirit – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, maintains that: the harshness of the penal system did not encourage convict women to be virtuous: an assigned female convict who rejected the sexual advances of her master could, on his word alone, be returned to the Female Factory as being of ‘bad character’.[1]  Very few women had the fortitude of Mary Breen (Blackfriar, 1851) to have the last word: 

An Insolent Servant.-Mary Breen, p.h., in the service of Mr. Drake, was charged by her master with neglect of duty and insolence, on Sunday morning. Mr. Drake described the woman's conduct as insolent in the extreme, and her demeanour in the office was sufficiently corroborative of the charge ; he informed His Worship, that he should not have brought her before him, had she not behaved repeatedly in a very bad manner. She was sentenced to one months' imprisonment with hard labor. On leaving the office the prisoner exclaimed in an insolent manner, addressing Mr. Drake : " You want a slut, and not a servant."
Article - The Hobarton Mercury (Tas. : 1854 - 1857)Wednesday 20 February 1856 - Page 3



Further resources:

Hiring Depots

Regulations for hiring Pass holders in Van Diemen's Land (Convict Department, 1st July, 1844)

Disposal on Arrival


 [1] De Vries, Susanna, Strength of Spirit – Pioneering Women of Achievement from First Fleet to Federation, (1995), Millennium Books Australia, p14 



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