The weather and location – surrounded by historic hillside neighbourhoods – seem so benign, but the woman speaking in front of me is inhabiting a different time, when the place we are standing, Cascades Female Factory, was known as the Valley of the Shadow of Death. The prevailing cold and sunless conditions weren’t the only reason. The Cascades operated as a female convict workhouse and reformatory from 1828 – four years after the nearby Cascade Brewery was established – till 1856, and then it was a prison until 1877. Its remnants now number among the 11 Australian Convict Sites placed on the World Heritage List in 2010.
Wearing a mop cap, apron and speaking in colonial brogue, actor Karissa Lane-Irons is Sarah Mason, sentenced to seven years in Van Diemen’s Land for stealing a shawl and a pair of boots. This one-woman performance tour called The Proud and the Punished is a daily alternative to traditional guided tours or audio experiences at the Cascades.
Over 40 minutes, we follow Karissa as she moves around a spartan enclosed area now known as Yard 1. Its original buildings – solitary confinement cells, nursery, workshops and a chapel – were demolished over a century ago, but the actor brings them back to life as she pauses where they stood to relate the hardships borne by Sarah and five other characters. Their babies died; they were put in solitary for talking or singing and got “sentences that would break your mind if it wasn’t broke already,” she says.
Two centuries before orange overalls made a TV drama statement, this real-life women’s prison was a hotbed of heartbreak, oppression, bravery and immorality. Among the 7000 convicts who passed through the institution, tales survive of lesbian inmates known as a “flash mob” for their attitude and “flash” clothing.
Back in the present, when the Cascades reopened in March after its pandemic hiatus, it unveiled a new $5m history and interpretation centre that shines a light on women’s role in Australia’s colonisation. Its vision statement is written in brass letters on the wall of the new centre’s welcome area: “This place bears witness of the displacement, oppression and control of women in lutruwita Tasmania. It honours their pain and loss, their courage and perseverance.”
One of those women was Trukanini. A stringybark tree has been planted in Yard 1 on the spot where the Bruny Island woman was buried in 1876 before her body was exhumed two years later for the morbid fascination of colonial “science”. It wasn’t till a century later that her remains were cremated and scattered in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel.
NEED TO KNOW
- The Proud and the Punished costs $50 (children $20) and runs daily at noon. Guided Convict Women’s Tour $35 ($20), including site entry and audio guide, runs hourly from 10am-4pm except noon. Site entry and audio tour alone are $25 ($10). Open seven days, 9am-5pm. Proceeds go towards the conservation and development of the Port Arthur Historic Sites. See femalefactory.org.au
- The factory, at 16 Degraves St, South Hobart, is a stop for Hobart’s Red Decker hop-on, hop-off bus.
- Visit Tasmania’s other World Heritage-listed convict sites at Port Arthur and Coal Mines historic sites, Tasman Peninsula; Brickendon and Woolmers Estates, Longford; and Darlington Probation Station, Maria Island.
The writer was a guest of Port Arthur Site Management Authority. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com