The Flash Mob, and the Flashing Bottoms:
Sorting out a popular confusion
The Flash Mob
In the Cascades Female Factory, late in the 1830s, a group of women developed a distinctive subculture defying the convict system’s program for ‘reform’. The labour regime at the core of the Assignment System was predicated upon a work model in which women were ‘assigned’ to work for settlers in return for stipulated clothes, food, and lodging. Members of ‘the Flash Mob’ refused the model. They were not going to serve the settlers. They had absolutely no interest in performing the role of domestic servant.
Whenever they were sent on assignment to some unsuspecting master, they resisted in the ways servants could—by refusing to work, spoiling their work, insolently talking back, getting drunk, etc. The master would then charge his recalcitrant servant with a breach of discipline, a magistrate would sentence her to ‘X’ number of days or weeks in the Female Factory, and she would return to the turf ruled by her friends in the Crime Class.
This network of women was known to the public as ‘the Flash Mob’, with ‘flash’ referring to their clothes and their general sense of style—using ‘flash’ in the sense of ‘flash’ cars and having nothing at all to do with crudely exposing bottoms. Their ‘flash’ dress was a fashion statement marking them out as special. Amidst the women of the crime class, condemned to drab prison garb, the Flash Mob sported brightly coloured silk handkerchiefs and embroidered caps, wore rings in their ears and on their hands, and carried on a thriving trade in fancy buttons.
They flamboyantly contravened the regulations governing clothes in the Crime Class, and they overcame the privation diet by trafficking in food. Women who had been ‘out’ on assignment brought back money (somehow) which could be used to buy meat, brandy, tobacco, sugar and tea. If you were ‘in’, you could live well. And keep amused. There were plays (with costumes) and plenty of opportunity for singing and dancing in an overcrowded prison with very few staff—and none of them venturing into dark unlit dormitories during Hobart’s long winter nights. These women were defined by style (see Chistopher Downes’ imaginative figures in Footsteps and Voices); they are the antithesis of the vulgar figures in the flashing bottoms postcard.
But the ‘Flash Mob’ were more than dandies. They were power brokers who led riots, and sexual predators who undoubtedly made life miserable for many other prisoners who were outside the ‘Mob’ or who resisted their advances. They could turn violent during riots, and as the convict conduct records show, they attacked members of staff.
The general public in Hobart were made aware of this prison subculture through newspaper speculation. One of the magistrates who visited the Cascades Female Factory to hear charges told the Colonial Times in 1840, ‘that a “Flash Mob” was in existence; but through fear, intimidation, and a kind of Masonic and secret influence it was not possible to discover the same’. This did not stop the newspaper from speculating, however, and the name they named was Ellen Scott.
Ellen’s story is told by Trudy Cowley in Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory. The story of another identifiable player in the Flash Mob, Mary Sheriff, is told by Lucy Frost in Convict Lives at the Ross Female Factory and in Abandoned Women. During the early 1840s key members of the Flash Mob were dispersed to factories at Launceston and later at Ross. In Convict Lives at the Launceston Female Factory, Pene Marshall recounts the behaviour of these ‘Obstreperous Inmates’. But by then the group had lost its cohesiveness, and its members were finally getting out of the system.
The Flashing Bottoms Story
The most famous story about the Cascades Female Factory is a tale of flashing bottoms. On a day when the Colonial Chaplain, Rev. William Bedford, was preaching to 300 convict women while Lieutenant Governor Sir John Franklin and his wife Jane looked on, the incarcerated audience showed their mocking displeasure by suddenly turning round (all at the same time!), pulling up their skirts, and smacking their bare bottoms. This story has been told by historians for more than sixty years, and is the subject of a widely circulated postcard.
But this piece of “history” is myth. Its creator was an Irishman named Robert Crooke who emigrated to Van Diemen’s Land in 1840, hoping to be appointed Colonial Chaplain. Instead, he found himself in the low-status job of catechist working for the Convict Department at a probation station on the Tasman Peninsula. Eventually, after fifteen years, he was eventually ordained as an Anglican priest in 1855—only to lose his coveted position two years later. His sexually inappropriate language outraged and scandalised his parishioners, who complained to the Bishop. An inquiry was set up, and the clergyman’s bizarrely inappropriate behaviour became a matter of public record. “The Rev. Mr. Crooke,” gloated a Hobart newspaper in 1858, “has sloped to Victoria.”
In the next thirty years before he died, he wrote various versions of an historical novel/diatribe/reminiscence in which he vented his spleen at the Anglican Church in Tasmania—including the Rev William Bedford. This writing is the source of the flashing bottoms story. In its telling, Rev. Crooke fantasised a moment of revenge against a prominent clergyman from the church which had driven him out.
No one would have known of this fantasy, much less taken it seriously as fact, if Crooke’s granddaughter had not show her cousin the unpublished manuscripts. This cousin, the historian Kathleen Fitzpatrick, quoted the “ribald tale” as she called it in her highly regarded biography, Sir John Franklin in Tasmania, and historians have been authorising this splenetic fantasy of Rev Crooke ever since!!
Why the flashing bottoms are offensive:
The postcard of the flashing bottoms feeds into stereotypical representations of convict women, and more generally of working-class women. The perspective of the on-looker is shared by the clergyman, the governor, his pretty petite wife—and the viewer of the postcards. The convict women in the foreground are ugly and ‘other’.
In a letter to the editor of the Mercury (June 2004), Julia Clark explained why many people find the “flashing bottoms” not just historically inaccurate but actively offensive. Julia wrote:
the image indulges in the crudest stereotyping of convict women and their social superiors. Despite the artist’s protestations, all seem to be coarse, vulgar creatures. In stark contrast, Lady Franklin is depicted as a pretty, blushing girl, despite the fact that she was a woman of the world, in her 50s when the putative event took place and described historically as ‘very plain’.
I realise that many people think the postcard representation is “just a good laugh” – but unfortunately that’s the classic defence in a power imbalance where the laugher is laughing at. Racist humour has always been defended in this way, and there’s a long tradition of jokes about women, jokes told by men (and if the women object, they’re accused of lacking a sense of humour).
Laughing at the convict women (stereotyped as crude and vulgar) runs counter to the guided tours introducing visitors to the experiences of women at Cascades; to the dramatised experience offered by Her Story;to the work of the Female Convicts Research Centre, and to the publications of the Convict Women’s Press. We’re all trying to break down stereotypes, not reinforce them.
21 March 2013
The following article about the Flash Mob was reported in the Colonial Times on 10 March 1840 (p.5 c.3). This article refers to the "unnatural liaisons" which occurred between members of the Flash Mob. Many of the "couple's" were named in the Inquiry Into Female Convict Discipline.
Female Factory – The Flash Mob!
On more than one occasion, as our readers may recollect, have we directed the attention of the proper authorities, to the laxity of discipline, which is practised at the Female House of Correction, near this town [Hobart]. Did nothing further result from this heedlessness, than a winking at certain harmless pastimes, indulged in by the inmates, we should not again bring forward the subject, thus promintently; but information has reached us of so flagrant and revolting a character, that we cannot, under any consideration, remain silent.
We have appended to the title of this article, the term "Flash Mob;" that this term is technical, is sufficiently obvious; but few of our readers,—few indeed, of any who possess the orginary attributes of human nature, can even conjecture the frightful abominations, which are practised by the women, who compose this mob. Of course, we cannot pollute our columns with the disgusting details, which have been conveyed to us; but we may, with propriety, call the notice of the proper Functionaries to a system of vice, immorality, and iniquity, which has tended, mainly, to render the majority of female assigned servants, the annoying and untractable animals, that they are.
The Flash Mob at the Factory consists, as it would seem, of a certain number of women, who, by a simple process of initiation, are admitted into a series of unhallowed mysteries, similar, in many respects, to those wich are described by Goethe, in his unrivalled Drama of Faust, as occurring, on particular occasions, amongst the supposed supernatural inhabitants of the Harz Mountains. Like those abominable Saturnalia, they are performed in the dark and silent hour of night, but, unlike those, they are performed in solitude and secrecy, amongst only the duly initiated. With the fiendish fondness for sin, every effort, both in the Factory, and out of it, is made by these wretches, to acquire proselytes to their infamous practices; and, it has come to our knowledge, within these few days, that a simple-minded girl, who had been in one and the same service, since she left the ship,—a period of nearly six months,—very narrowly escaped seduction (we can use no stronger term) by a well known, and most accomplished member of this unholy sisterhood. This practice constitutes one of the rules of teh "order;" and we need not waste many words to show how permiciously it must act upon the "new hands," exposed to its influence. Another rule is, that, should any member be assigned, she must return to the Factory, so soon as she has obtained (we need to say by what means) a sufficient sum of money to enable herself and her companion to procure such indulgences, as the Factory can supply,—or, rather, as can be supplied by certain individuals, connected with the Factory. This sufficiently accounts for the contempt, which the majority of female prisoners entertain for the Factory, while it shows, also, why the solitary cell is considered the worst punishment.
Presuming that neither the Superintendent of the Female House of Correction, nor the Matron, can be cognizant of these things, we have thus publicly directed their attention to them; whhile we cannot but remark, that their want of knowledge can only originate in direct and palpable negligence. In more than one sense, is this place deserving of teh tile of the "Valley of the Shadow of Death;" and, in reflecting upon what we can vouch to be true, we do not know, whether horror or indignation prevails most in our mind. Good God! When we consider that these wretches in human form, are scattered through the Colony, and admitted into the house of respectable families, coming into hourly association with their sons and daughters, we shudder at the consequences, and canno forbear asking the question: "Are there no means of preventing all this?" Is the Superintendent of the Female House of Correction (!) afraid of these harpies? Or is he too indolent and too good-natured to trouble himslef about the matter? We cannot think that either is the case; for we believe Mr. Hutchinson to be a righteous man, and not likely to tolerate such rank abomination. If he be ignorant of the practices to which we have referred, we will willingly afford him all the information, that we possess. In concluding this painful subject, we may observe, that a favorite resort of this Flash Mob, when any of its members are out of the Factory, is the Canteen of a Sunday afternoon, and the Military Barracks of a Sunday night, where comfortable quarters may be procured until the morning! The whole system of Female Prison Discipline is bad and rotten at the very core, tending only to vice, immorality, and the most disgusting licentiousness.
It was rants like this in the local newspapers that resulted in the Inquiry Into Female Convict Discipline conducted between 1841 and 1843.
These and other female convicts were often notoriously difficult to discipline. The Launceston Examiner reported on 10 May 1845 that:
The Colonial Times, referring to the inmates of the female factory at Hobart Town, has the following:—What will Mr. John Hutchinson say in the matter? Why, he will say with truth, "I have threatened them, and they have laughed at me; I have remonstrated with them, they have laughed at me; I have coaxed them, they have laughed at me; Dr. Bedford and myself have prayed and preached to them, they have laughed at us; and when it was found necessary to punish, they frowned, and, I believe, exercised their idle hours in planning rebellion and revenge."