The practices of hair cutting and head shaving were widely used in English prisons and asylums for medical or hygiene purposes and also as humiliating punishments for incorrigible female prisoners.


Elizabeth Fry, in 1827, when outlining methods for distinguishing different classes of prisoners, and promoting modest prison attire, also suggested that if the long hair on convicted felons were cut off and kept short during their term of imprisonment, ‘it would be found to act as a certain yet harmless punishment that would promote that humiliation of spirit which, for persons so circumstanced, is an indispensable step to improvement and reformation’.[1]


Cutting off the hair and head shaving were seen as highly effective punishments precisely because the women detested them. As was intended, they were felt to be personally degrading or, as described by Joy Damousi, ‘defeminising’.[2] The magistrates could order their application in conjunction with other punishments, such as a term of imprisonment;  admittance to the female factories for a period of detention would automatically include having the hair cut short. What is not always obvious from the records was the difference between cutting the hair short, cutting the hair close to the head and shaving the head; having the head shaved was a more targeted and demeaning deterrent. 


Hair cutting of female convicts on the convict transport ships to Van Diemen’s Land was a form of punishment that could be carried out in a confined space and, unlike solitary confinement, could be implemented simultaneously on more than one convict at a time.  It was first recorded on a voyage to Van Diemen's Land by Mr Robert Espie, Surgeon Superintendent of the Lord Sidmouth (arrived 1823), who used head shaving as a punishment on at least four separate occasions during the voyage, mentioning that the punishment was customary in cases of thieving. Espie also noted that ‘this mode of punishment seems to be the only thing they regard’.[3]  An article printed in 1866 called ‘Life on Board a Female Convict Ship’ described how cropping of the hair was regarded as ‘the severest punishment of all’:

I believe there was not a female on board, old or young, who would not almost as soon have lost her life as have had her hair cut close. It not only deprived them of their most cherished natural ornament, but it branded them as infamous on their arrival in the colony, and rendered them objects of ridicule and derision.[4]


Espie later altered his opinion on the effectiveness of solitary confinement combined with hair cutting, noting that this punishment only incited the convicts to be more defiant:

I commenced to giving up my whole time and attention to the service I was employed on, but I had imbibed (and have still a strong prejudice) against corporal punishment and I tried all I could by other means such as solitary confinement and cutting their hair. These trifles only incited them to go to greater lengths to bid me utter defiance with a thousand threats of what they would do when they got to Sydney. [5]


Whilst Damousi reports of female convicts having their hair cut and heads shorn from the 1790’s, they were first recorded in Van Diemen’s Land  as a punishment in 1824 and became systematic practise in 1826 under Governor Ralph Darling, reaching a peak between 1826 and 1831. During this time hair cutting became an accepted form of punishment of women in the third penitentiary class in the female prisons and of ‘incorrigibles’, habitual offenders for whom hair cutting was applied in conjunction with other punishments.  In 1829 hair cutting was codified in The Rules and Regulations for the management of the House of Correction for Females, published in the Hobart Town Gazette on 3 October 1829: ‘if incarcerated for any offence, she shall have her hair cut short’. This would indicate the House of Correction used this as a general deterrent, in addition to punishments meted out by the courts.[6] 


Some examples of hair cutting as a punishment:

- The earliest report of hair cutting in the conduct records involved Ann Williams (per Mary 1823) who in 1824 was convicted of stealing a pair of stockings, the property of the Crown. Her punishment was 14 days in the iron collar and having her hair cut off.

- The Hobart Town Gazette of 10 December 1825 reported that seven prisoners who escaped from the Female Factory at night by means of a hole in the wall were sentenced to confinement in the cells on bread and water, the wearing of an iron collar and having their hair cut close to the head. The women included Ann Riley, Ellen Holland, Mary Thomas and Elizabeth Slater. [7]

- On 7th May 1827 Ann Wilson (ux. Bruin) per Morley 1820, was defiant when sentenced to have her hair cut off:

Hannah, the wife of Richard Brum, for disorderly conduct in the Factory, breaking Mr. Drabble's windows, and being insolent and abusive, to the said Mr. Drabble. Ordered to George Town, for 18 months. On receiving sentence, she turned round in at impudent way, saying she was glad of it, she wanted to go there. On being brought back and sentenced to sit in the stocks for four hours, she in the same manner replied you shall not cut my hair off. She was again brought back and sentenced to have her hair cut off. This seemed to make some impression …….. [8]

-For refusing to go to her service in 1829, Mary Kirkland (per Harmony 1828) was punished by : ‘Cell on bread and water 10 days have her hair shaved when about to come out of the Factory be sent to the Interior and placed 6 months in the Crime Class’.


George Pullen, who in the late 1820s lived in the Hobart and Cascades Female Factories with his uncle, the assistant superintendent, described the process of cutting off the convict women’s hair: ‘For all those sentenced to the cells or crime class there was invariably a preliminary ordeal to be gone through in the loss of their hair. It certainly was a sight to arouse one's pity to witness the long flowing raven or auburn locks falling to the ground to the rhythmic snipping of the barber's great shears. The women looked upon it as a barbarous, personal outrage – a degrading humiliation. Many who would have borne stolidly any other kind of punishment shed bitter tears over the loss of their hair; some fainted, and now and then one would fight like a tigress for the retention of her highly valued and petted locks, and the operation had to be performed under the persuasive influence of physical force.’[9] His comments are supported by convict Eliza Churchill (per Navarino) who stated:   ‘Cutting off their hair was a punishment generally disliked I have heard Jane Carr say she would rather take two years in the factory than have her hair cut off & I have heard many others make similar remarks’.[10]


During the 1830’s, convict women in New South Wales rioted against the continued punishment of hair cutting.[11]  However, records show that in Van Diemen’s Land the practise was rarely used during this time and by 1841 the Superintendent of the Cascades Female Factory, John Hutchinson, and Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Josiah Spode, both stated that it was no longer used.[12] [i] Appearing before the Committee of Inquiry into Female Convict Prison Discipline 1841 – 43, Spode did, however, appear to support hair cutting as a punishment:

Q.219: Do you think that the power vested in the Magistrates and Officers of the Factory in reference to female convicts is sufficient for the purposes of discipline and of deterring women from the commission of offences? If not, what additional means would be recommended?

A.: It is with the exception of one point viz the power of cutting off the hair which was formerly adopted in cases of disorderly conduct in the House of Correction which was found to be very effective. An order was issued about five years since prohibiting the employment of this punishment; but I am of opinion that it would be advisable to resume that custom.[13]


Records show that magistrates ordered hair cutting as a punishment only twice after 1841:  in February and March 1843 Mary Grant (per Atwick, 1837), and Ellen Gavin (per Gilbert Henderson, 1839) were both punished for insubordination by having their hair cut off.  However, a stricter regime began at the Cascades Female Factory in 1851 which resulted convict women routinely having their hair cut off on arrival. This practise was under discussion in 1855:

INSULTING TREATMENT. –It is not generally known, perhaps, that, when free females are sentenced to imprisonment, under the Servants Hired Act, and are sent to the factory, that they have their hair cut closely off their head. We had supposed, that this pitiful indignity had been long since abolished, even with female prisoners, but, it seems, we are mistaken, although, we believe, the practice was, at one time, discontinued. With whom its revival rests, we know not, but, we feel assured, that we have only to bring the subject under the notice of His Excellency Sir F. Young, to have it at once, and immediately abolished. (Hobarton Mercury 10 January 1855)


Perhaps partly due to this article, the practice was abolished. Later that year, giving evidence at an enquiry, the Matron of the Cascades Female Factory, Charlotte McCullagh, stated that:

It is not the custom to cut off women's hair when received; it has not been for eight or nine months. There is a free division of the Factory. Up to that time it was the invariable practice to cut off the women's hair on being received, without reference to the length or nature of the sentence. I do not know why the practice was discontinued. The superintendent gave the order. (Courier, 24 December 1855).


Further Resources:

Damousi, Joy, Depraved and Disorderly Female Convicts Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia Chapter 4: Defeminising Convict Women, Headshaving as Punishment in the Female Factories.

Enquiry into Female Convict Discipline 1841-1843.


[i] Enquiry into Female Convict Conduct 1841-43

  1. Are these the only punishments you have ever used? Women have in some cases been sentenced to have their hair cut off, & to wear the Iron collar.
  2. Are these sentences ever given now? No; They have been discontinued for some time.
  3. Do you think that the power vested in the Magistrates and Officers of the Factory in reference to female convicts is sufficient for the purposes of discipline and of deterring women from the commission of offences? If not, what additional means would be recommended? It is with the exception of one point viz the power of cutting off the hair which was formerly adopted in cases of disorderly conduct in the House of Correction which was found to be very effective. An order was issued about five years since prohibiting the employment of this punishment; but I am of opinion that it would be advisable to resume that custom. Note: Was not this order issued before my arrival? If so it is more than five years. JM


[1] Fry, Elizabeth Gurney, (1827) Observations on the Visiting, Superintendence, and Government of Female Prisoners p.61,, accessed 21/03/2020

[2] Damousi, Joy, (1997) Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia, Cambridge University Press. P.86




[6] Hobart Town Gazette on 3 October 1829

[7] Hobart Town Gazette, Saturday 10 December 1825 p 2 Article

[8] FROM THE TASMANIAN. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Friday 1 June 1827 p 2 Article

[9] BACKWARD GLANCES. No. 3. by G.P.[George Pullen]

Launceston Examiner Saturday 19 November 1892 p 2 Article


[11] Robbins, W.M. (2001) THE MANAGEMENT OF CONVICT LABOUR EMPLOYED BY NEW SOUTH WALES GOVERNMENT 1788-1830.p.230.  accessed 21/03/2020





By E. Crawford (Sept. 2020)



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