Roses from the Heart

The artist Christina Henri has a unique and personal approach to the history of women transported to Australia: she has set out to gather together 25,266 bonnets – one for each female convict transported between 1788 and 1853 – and to use them as a permanent memorial to these forgotten women who were sent to the other side of the world, permanently separated from their families, often for trivial crimes. Read more about Christina Henri’s work on her website: http://www.christinahenri.com.au/

Anyone moved by the women’s history can contribute a bonnet to the project. More than 20,000 have been made, but thousands are still needed. A bonnet pattern and instructions on where to send the finished work are also on Christina Henri’s website: http://www.christinahenri.com.au/index.php?/info/downloads/

The “Roses from the Heart” blog has photos of some of the bonnets that have been sent in for the project: http://rosesfromtheheart.tumblr.com/

I’ve just finished my bonnet – at The Festival of Quilts in Birmingham last summer, where some of the bonnets were displayed, I was given a woman convict’s details to embroider on the bonnet brim. Other decoration and embellishment is left up to you. I felt I wanted to make something pretty for a woman who had to face such unimaginable hardship. Ellen Wellson, tried in Londonderry on 19th July 1827 and transported on the ship “Elizabeth” with 193 others, this is for you:


The Female Convicts Research Group (Tasmania) website: http://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/ has a jaw-dropping amount of information on the lives of women transported from Britain. Here is just a fraction:

Female convicts ranged in age from children to women in old age—the youngest recorded was 10 years old, and the oldest was 81. The census return for Brickfields Hiring Depot, Hobart in 1843 provides a snapshot of women convicts there at the time: 24 single females aged 14 to under 21 years; 136 single females aged 21 to under 45 years; and 19 single females aged 45 to under 60 years.

Many of the women’s crimes would be considered minor offences by today’s standards, and were overwhelmingly crimes of poverty. The most common by far was stealing—food, clothing, money or household items. A conviction for vagrancy or prostitution might also lead to transportation. Of course, there must have been hardened criminals among the large numbers transported, but most had committed crimes that would barely attract a formal caution today.

The voyage from Britain to Australia took months: the ship “Elizabeth” that took Ellen Wellson to New South Wales, left Cork on 27th August 1827 and didn’t arrive until 12th January 1828, a journey of nearly 20 weeks.

Conditions on board were crowded and filthy. Deaths were common, as sickness spread easily among the malnourished women confined in stinking surroundings. Many ships carried large numbers of babies and children: the “Tasmania” sailing from Dublin on 2nd September 1845, on her second voyage as a female convict ship, carried 138 female convicts and 37 of their children. These little ones, some born on-board ship, were particularly vulnerable to disease.

Physical abuse was not unusual – an anonymous ship’s surgeon recorded his experiences onboard:
“The voyage was one of continued misery from the time the ship left England till she arrived in Sydney… nothing was more common on the caprice of a captain of a ship, or possibly on the complaint of a second or third mate, to lash an unfortunate creature up to the gangway, and flog her most severely, in exactly the same manner that sailors are flogged in the navy… when these wretched women arrived at their destination, and were assigned to the different settlers, there was always one loud cry of horror at their degraded state.”

On arrival in Australia, the women’s fate varied during the years when transportation was at its peak: women might be held for six months in a probation station before being assigned to a settler family as a servant, sent to one of the government nurseries if they were still feeding a baby, or sent to work in one of the Female Factories (to work carding or sorting wool, for example). The Rules & Regulations of the Female Factories make fascinating reading and give an insight into the lives of the convict women: http://tinyurl.com/6amzkwe

Pregnant convicts remained with their babies until these were weaned. Initially, weaning occurred at six months, but was later extended to nine months in an attempt to reduce the death rate of infants in the nurseries, which was much higher than in the wider population*. The children, if they survived the terrible conditions, remained in the nurseries until they reached the age of 2 or 3 years old when they were removed to the orphan schools, unless their mother had gained her freedom in the meantime and could prove she could support the child. The majority of children were never reclaimed.

* 1,148 children died in the Hobart nurseries between 1829 and 1856. Dr Rebecca Kippen’s paper on this shocking subject can be downloaded here: http://tinyurl.com/6ka3unu “… the convict mothers… were probably the most disempowered and voiceless group in the colony, having no recourse for complaint. Half a world away from family and friends, they had nothing to negotiate with and were powerless to prevent the deaths of their children.”

Making a bonnet seems like a very small gesture of solidarity, but I’m glad I reached down the years and remembered Ellen Wellson. God bless her.

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