The Hidden History of the Women Who Rose Up


Like all colonial societies, Australia has secrets. The way we treat Indigenous people is still mostly a secret. For a long time, the fact that many Australians came from what was called “bad stock” was a secret.

“Bad stock” meant convict forebears: those like my great-great grandmother, Mary Palmer, who was incarcerated here, at the Female Factory in Parramatta in 1823.

According to nonsense spun by numerous aunts – who had irresistible bourgeois ambitions — Mary Palmer and the man she married, Francis McCarthy, were a lady and a gentleman of Victorian property and propriety.

In fact, Mary was the youngest member of a gang of wild young women, mostly Irish, who operated in the East End of London.  Known as “The Ruffians”, they kept poverty at bay with the proceeds of prostitution and petty theft.

The Ruffians were eventually arrested and tried, and hanged — except Mary, who was spared because she was pregnant.

She was just 16 years old when she was manacled in the hold of a ship under sail, the Lord Sidmouth, bound for New South Wales “for the term of her natural life”, said the judge.

The voyage took five months, a purgatory of sickness and despair. I know what she looked like because, some years ago, I discovered an extraordinary ritual in St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

Every Thursday, in a vestry, a nun would turn the pages of a register of Irish Catholic convicts — and there was Mary, described as “not more than 4ft in height, emaciated and pitted with the ravages of small pox”.

When Mary’s ship docked at Sydney Cove, no one claimed her as a servant or a skivvy. She was a “third class” convict and one of “the inflammable matter of Ireland”. Did her newly born survive the voyage? I don’t know.

They sent her up the Parramatta River to the Female Factory, which had distinguished itself as one of the places where Victorian penal experts were testing their exciting new theories. The treadwheel was introduced in the year Mary arrived, 1823. It was an implement of punishment and torture.


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The Cumberland  Pilgrim described the Female Factory as “appallingly hideous … the recreation ground reminds one of the Valley of the Shadow of Death”.

Arriving at night, Mary had nothing to sleep on, only boards and stone and straw, and filthy wool full of ticks and spiders. All the women underwent solitary confinement. Their heads were shaved and they were locked in total darkness with the whine of mosquitoes.

There was no division by age or crime. Mary and the other women were called “the intractables”.  With a mixture of horror and admiration, the Attorney General at the time, Roger Terry, described how the women had “driven back with a volley of stones and staves” soldiers sent to put down their rebellion. More than once, they breached the sandstone walls and stormed the community of Parramatta.  .

Missionaries sent from England to repair the souls of the women were given similar short shrift.

I am so proud of her.


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Then there was “courting day”. Once a week, “bereft gentlemen” (whomever they might be) were given first pick, followed by soldiers, then male convicts.

Some of the women found “finery” and primped urgently, as if an inspecting male might provide a way out of their predicament. Others turned their backs should an aspiring mate be an “old stringybark fella” down from the bush.

During all this, the matron would shout out what she called “the good points” of each woman, which was a revelation to all.

In this way, my great-great grandparents met each other. I believe they were well matched.

Francis McCarthy had been transported from Ireland for the crime of “uttering unlawful oaths” against his English landlord. That was the charge leveled at the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

I am so proud of him.

Mary and Francis were married at St Mary’s Church, later St Mary’s Cathedral, on November 9th, 1823, with four other convict couples.  Eight years later, they were granted their “ticket of leave” and Mary her “conditional pardon” by one Colonel Snodgrass, the Captain General of New South Wales — the condition being she could never leave the colony.

Mary bore 10 children and they lived out hard lives, loved and respected by all accounts, to their ninetieth year.


Victorian women criminals' records show harsh justice of 19th century

Elizabeth Murphy (left) was sentenced to 5 years hard labour for stealing an umbrella and Mary Richards was jailed for 5 years for stealing 130 oysters  Photo: PA


My mother knew the secret about Mary and Francis. On her wedding day in 1922, and in defiance of her own family, she and my father came to these walls to pay tribute to Mary and the intractables. She was proud of her “bad stock”.

I sometimes wonder: where is this spirit today? Where is the spirit of the intractables among those who claim to represent us and those of us who accept, in supine silence, the corporate conformity that is characteristic of much of the modern era in so-called developed countries?

Where are those of us prepared to “utter unlawful oaths” and stand up to the authoritarians and charlatans in government, who glorify war and invent foreign enemies and criminalise dissent and who abuse and mistreat vulnerable refugees to these shores and disgracefully call them “illegals”.

Mary Palmer was “illegal”. Francis McCarthy was “illegal”. All the women who survived the Female Factory and fought off authority, were “illegal”.

The memory of their courage and resilience and resistance should be honoured, not traduced, in the way we are today. For only when we recognise the uniqueness of our past — our Indigenous past and our proud convict past — will this nation achieve true independence.

John Pilger gave this address on the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the Parramatta Female Factory, Sydney.

He can be reached through his website:

19 thoughts on “The Hidden History of the Women Who Rose Up

  1. Great stuff from Pilger as always, thanks Claire. And then there are the British Home Children, those from the poorest families in Britain who were scooped up from the streets, workhouses and orphanages in the name of charity and sent to the colonies to work as child labourers. Australia received about 20,000 of them whereas Canada received over 100,000 such boys and girls, some as young as 5. For the British elite it was a clever one-two punch: “solving” the problem of excess poverty created by the industrial capitalists (simply ship them out of sight); and keeping the colonies white while getting free child labour. On the positive side—nearly a century later—both Britain and Australia have officially apologized to the families of the British Home Children or child migrants. A cross-party motion in Canadian Parliament last year finally offered a similar apology, and this year a motion passed to declare September 28 national British Home Child Day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sean Arthur! Please forgive my delay. Good to hear from you. Yes, the sheer scope of the full story is a shock to take in. Just the numbers alone reveal a human experience that was simultaneously vast -and yet lost. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid example of class injury at work. I hope you well, my friend. Thanks again for stopping by.


    1. Hey, you big lug. I seem to know of it because England also shipped its bulging surplus of troublesome poor people to work as laborers here in the states. Thats how America got “hillbilly” culture, bluegrass music, folk music, and certain scary legends. Boy, those same petty crooks from the slums of London sure developed a different style in Australia. I think that simply being white Down Under was a ticket upward.
      So, the UK is turning out to be as freaky as the US. Your upper class is clearly insane. The discourse on anti-semitism as well as upper-class pedophilia has completely stripped the blinds from my eyes. I’m letting you people know that I want those blinds back. XXOO

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, having the blinds off is uncomfortable. I’m still trying to find where I left mine.

        The current government (not to mention the previous one)is a study in incompetence, much, although not all, of it aristocratic. Amazing. And the whole antisemitism thing is bizarre and endless. I don’t doubt there’s antisemitism in the Labour Party–it’s threaded heavily throughout British culture, so how would there not be? But to claim that it’s the same thing as criticizing Israel? That diminishes us all. At one point he went to a seder, but it was with the wrong Jews, so it didn’t count.

        Speaking as a wrong kind of Jew, I resent that.

        In the meantime, various ranking Conservatives have been virulently anti-Muslim and that gives us a headline or two and then the whole thing blows over.

        Enough of the rant. It’s good to see you back online.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed! Who wouldn’t want an Irish great-grandfather who was so rude to his landlord (installed by the thieving Brits) that England found it prudent to ship him across the world? Or a teen-age street kid for a great-grandmother, a small fiesty girl who participated in not one but several 19th century prison riots!
      Anyone who’d rather find some aristocrat in his family background is a punk.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Angela! What’s up, Doc? I’m glad there was an actual post for you to read. I’ve gotten worse than ever at keeping up with blogging, but I’ve resolved to give myself a good hard
      shove. I couldn’t change the title of someone else’s post and I agree with you that it (the title) points away from who was really hidden in Australia, and who gave new meaning to the term” rise up”. They sure weren’t white settlers, even teenage convicts from London slums. Hidden history and the struggle to rise in Australia belong overwhelmingly to its Native Peoples. I do know something about that struggle, but not as it applies to Pygmies. Anyway, I find the article interesting because it shows how fluidly social class accomodates racism, The presence of Black people in Australia was all it took to elevate the status of the very bottom layer of England – only because that layer was white.
      So sorry to babble on. I’m so glad to hear from you and will stop by very soon. XXOO

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Claire, it was so wonderful to read your blog. Glad you’re blogging again. I’m also happy you’re well.

        I too stopped blogging for a year or two and thought of giving it up entirely because I struggled to write a sentence. Now I recognize I made it difficult and it should be fun for me. It’s a labor of love.

        “Anyway, I find the article interesting because it shows how fluidly social class accommodates racism, The presence of Black people in Australia was all it took to elevate the status of the very bottom layer of England – only because that layer was white.”
        An example in the US is Trump. Look at how Trump’s rise to power emboldened the racists in America. Racist white people from the very young to the old are physically and verbally attacking random black people, especially those perceived as vulnerable. Some politicians think it’s now acceptable to openly embrace bigotry. The hidden story is yet to be told.
        Best Regards and Hugs

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Whoops! I missed you again. My site has stopped showing the unread comments in a different color, so they no longer pop out and catch my eye. I visited your blog and was overwhelmed by how physically beautiful and sophisticated it is, You could do this professionally. Well, your’e a doctor, so I guess you don’t need anymore professional training. (-: I spend a lot more time on Twitter – I’m going to check your account XXOO

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Claire, You sound like me, I’m forever missing things. Thank you for your comments about my blog. Hopefully it will last at least a few days after I’m gone. I use to spend more time on Twitter but it’s no longer fun. The world seems very cold and cruel to me. Anyway, I woke up on the wrong side. Hope you have a great weekend!

        Liked by 1 person

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