The Hidden History of the Women Who Rose Up

John Pilger asks where the spirit of rebellion has gone that once led to numerous uprisings at a female prison factory in Australia where his great-great grandmother was once interned.

By John Pilger 

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.

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.

Parramatta Female Factory Entrance c1870. (Courtesy of the Society of Australian Genealogists.)

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.

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.

Ticket of Leave’

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.

The factory today. (

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

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, a prison where ‘intractable’ women convicts from mostly Ireland and England were sent to Britain’s Australian colony in the early 19th century.

John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist based in London. Pilger’s Web site is: His new film, “The Coming War on China,” is available in the U.S. from

10 comments for “The Hidden History of the Women Who Rose Up

  1. Lois Gagnon
    July 9, 2018 at 19:39

    This is a short speech by Matt Damon channeling Howard Zinn.

    We have become conditioned to obey authority to the point of self destruction.

  2. Joe Tedesky
    July 8, 2018 at 10:18

    I admire Mr Pilger’s due diligence for his efforts to retrace his family’s roots. It would be worthwhile if more of us would remind ourselves of where we came from, and like John Pilger pointed out that might be a humbling experience.

    I recently found out my grandmother ran a moonshine still back during Prohibition, and found out we had a great-great grandmother who was brought from Spain to be left on a doorstep in Naples, Italy. In fact that relative took as her last name the word Naples, after the city, as she became Maria Naples.

    Like John Pilger finding these type of ancestral life happenings does make you stop and think. If we transpose our ancestors past, and relate their history to our modern day world it can have a profound effect on your thinking…that is if you let it. Far too often though the new money of the ambitious separates their capitalist soul from their human one.

    My Mum & Dad both we’re born and raised spending their whole life close to where they grew up. My parents stayed warmly, and sometimes financially attached to their huge family, as they never forgot from where they came from. In many ways my parents example of how to live life has rubbed off on my philosophy of how to deal with life.

    Today we bequeath titles upon each other, like liberal, conservative, you know the labels. Possibly we should label each other as ‘human’, and take it from there.

  3. Haggai One Nine
    July 8, 2018 at 01:33

    What a wonderful quality in Mr Pilger’s essay, revealing his touching personal relationship with Australia’s history. I’ve wondered why I have always admired his journalistic reporting and documentaries and now realise it was his Australian heritage. Being retired from an international professional engineering career in civil engineering, I have encountered and befriended numerous Irish people. I have always found them among the most welcoming and reliable of friends.

  4. Mary
    July 7, 2018 at 23:49

    Such strength, such love.

  5. Sam F
    July 7, 2018 at 20:41

    Thank you John Pilger for this glimpse of early Australia; for details readers will find Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes very interesting. The small crimes for which the unfortunate were “transported” reflects the inhumanity of oligarchy, as does the US incarceration of over one million of the poor.

    Single rich persons like Maddow have stolen more than the sum of the crimes of most of the incarcerated and are never punished. Small numbers of the rich have caused more murders in their genocides for Israel and against socialism. And the crimes of the rich are premeditated, not due to desperation or anger. The true savages of America are the rich.

    The American colonies were the repository of English criminals before Australia. We too should “recognize the uniqueness of our past” as both indigenous and refugee immigrants, celebrate our rebellion for freedom, and rise again to throw off the yoke of the rich who have stolen our democracy. If the US ever again shows true courage, perhaps it will swap the rich for much of our prison population.

    • mike k
      July 7, 2018 at 22:07

      Bravo Sam! Excellent comment. No way I could improve on it. Thank you for your clarity, which cuts through all the bullshit that seeks to justify and sanctify the bloated rich bastards, and their cowardly henchmen and women.

      • Sam F
        July 8, 2018 at 13:59

        Thanks, Mike, that comment just came out, and I feared that I should have edited it.

    • Ken
      July 8, 2018 at 15:11

      I double that Bravo.
      And would triple it for this beautiful account which vouches for Pilger’s courage in calling a spade a spade and his relentless dedication to exposing the underbelly of the perversely heinous ptb.

    • Typingperson
      July 9, 2018 at 21:24

      Thank you, Mr. Pilger, for this great remembrance of your Irish great-great grandmother. Only 16 years old and 4 ft tall, malnourished, emaciated and beaten down by The Man–and what a fighter! Inspiring to me.

      @Sam F: I report on legal news and I will never forget years ago visiting Bill Brennan, the fierce, kind and dedicated head of the home defense unit at our local legal aid. (He started the unit, which protects poor home-owners from getting their houses stolen by banks and scammers.)

      I asked Bill, a Catholic with Irish roots, why he became one of the first legal aid lawyers back in late 60s. He jumped up from his desk in his tiny, cramped office, grabbed a copy of Mario Puzo”s The Godfather off his bookshelf–and opened it to the title page to read me the epigraph:

      “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

      I was a bit stunned at the time. Seemed an overstatement. Have come to realize he was correct.

      • Sam F
        July 11, 2018 at 19:16

        Sorry I missed your reply, TP. I had not run across that one from Balzac yet, but quite agree. Some legal news will be forthcoming on that, as I am slowly investigating political racketeering in Florida. There are too many really good Irish catholics for coincidence – I will have to find out why.

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