The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women

8138329One 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.

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Read for AusReading Month, hosted by Brona.

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18 comments

  1. I’m just starting to get into Australian history so this one sounds like a good place to start. If you stick with it, The Secret River will pick up towards the end. These 2 books must dovetail nicely for you : being both about the penal colony experience.

  2. I’m starting to get into Australian history so this one sounds like a good place to start. If you stick with it, The Secret River will pick up towards the end. These 2 books must dovetail nicely for you: both about the penal colony experience.

    • This author didn’t spend that much time on the voyage itself, but the little she described in her book sounded harrowing. There was no need for anyone to look out for the “convicts,” so the conditions on the ships were bad, to put it mildly.

  3. I have a few male convicts in my family history. All but one were first time offenders and transported for 7 yrs (the minimum conviction) for stealing small items – one stole food, one stole a copper pot. The multiple offender was still little more than a petty criminal – sheep rustling and fighting with his boss/neighbour.

    I believe the female convicts had a much rougher time though. Many were sexually abused and harrassed. Their aim was to get assigned to a free settler looking for a wife in the hope they would have an easier time of things.

    I was surprised to hear about the destroying of records. Most Australians are now rather proud of their convict heritage and family history research over the past 30 yrs has boomed. We have found all our convicts shipping records, tickets of leave etc.
    Our serial offender ended up working his 14 yr sentence at Camden Park – the large estate established by John Macarthur just south of Sydney.

    I just wish they had left diaries or journals but most of them couldn’t read or write and signed their names on official documents with an ‘x’.

    • You echo exactly what the author said in her introduction. Considering who was targeted by the Transportation Act, it is no surprise that there are no written records from those who were transported to Australia. Even if anyone knew how to write, they wouldn’t have had access to pen and paper. It’s too bad for anyone researching family history or this particular time/event in history. It was something I wished for just reading this book.

    • It surprised me to read in this book that both the British and the Australian government tried to cover up the extend of the “convict shipments.” Australia didn’t stop until 2000 to destroy convict census records. Definitely an interesting part of history!

  4. This sounds interesting! I have often thought about the fact that most of the ‘criminals’ sent to Australia were probably not really very criminally-minded (especially the women, it sounds like). It’s too bad the author didn’t have more to go on in terms of diaries/journals/letters.

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