One in 5 Australians share convict ancestry, partly because Great Britain sent 162,000 men, women, and children to Australia under its Transportation Act between 1788 and 1868. It was a convenient way to remove criminals from British shores and provide cheap, disposable labor for one of its colonies. Less than 2% of the women sent to Australia had committed a violent crime, and 65% were first offenders. In her book The Tin Ticket. The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, Deborah J. Swiss has focused on this aspect of Australian (and British) history. She has picked four women—Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, Ludlow Tedder, and Bridget Mulligan—and followed them from England and Ireland to the Cascades Female Factory in present-day Tasmania. The tin ticket of the title is the metal plate each woman had to wear, reducing her to the number stamped on it to keep track of her.
On top of being deported for mostly petty crimes, the women were indentured upon arrival. Most of them had to serve a sentence of 7 years. Settlers took advantage of this cheap source of labor, leading many women to commit crimes again because only time spent in the penitentiary meant time off from unending, back-breaking work. But conditions were, not surprisingly, squalid, and many women died from malnutrition and even small injuries. Yet the four women the book focuses on persevered. After receiving their Tickets of Leave, each one went on to prosper.
Writing about women who left no personal record of their lives—no letters or diaries—can be difficult. But this book is meticulously researched, and Swiss does a good job filling the gaps left by the fact that there is little more than official recordings of them. I don’t have a particular problem with that, since it is not difficult to imagine the hardships these women had to go through. I have to admit, though, that the language was sometimes too embellished for me. I like my nonfiction a little more straightforward. I agree with many reviewers on Goodreads that there was no need to constantly refer to Agnes as the “grey-eyed lassie” or the “Scottish rebel.” And I wish Bridget Mulligan, “who gave birth to a line of powerful women stretching to the present day,” had been given a little more time in the book. Overall, though, it’s an entertaining look at a time and place of history I have previously known little about.