She and Her Pretty Friend: Love at the Female Factory
by Danielle Scrimshaw
Catherine Owens arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the Lady of the Lake, after departing London on 12 June 1829. She had been convicted several times before being transported. Her convict record describes Catherine as having a violent disposition, in addition to being a single housemaid with a ‘dark complexion’ who could read and write (a rarity for lower‑class women at the time). She was sentenced to fourteen years for receiving stolen spoons.
The Lady of the Lake arrived with eighty‑one passengers on 1 November 1830, a little over four months after departure. Two days later, the Eliza left British shores to carry another shipload of convicts to Van Diemen’s Land, including the young Irishwoman Ellen Scott. Ellen was convicted when she was eighteen for stealing a watch chain. Unlike Catherine, Ellen only had one criminal offence—for vagrancy—before being transported for life to Australia.
These two women would later cross paths after establishing themselves as convicts not to be messed with. They met at the Female Factory in Launceston and entered a relationship that was openly acknowledged as such. In several records in the early 1840s, their names are paired, two accomplices in a grand mythology created by local media and the whispers of fellow convicts.
In 1841 at the Launceston Female House of Correction, Ellen Scott started a riot in protest of Catherine Owens being confined to a solitary cell. Catherine was broken out by a group of women who launched themselves on the sub-matron as she entered the cell, intending to visit Catherine, who was feigning illness. She and eighty-five women barricaded themselves in the mess room, defying the Superintendent and fighting off police constables with bricks, knives and quart bottles. The women claimed they would not allow Owens to serve the remainder of her confinement, and so they remained for the rest of the day, deprived of food and water, breaking furniture by dawn. The riot was eventually quelled by the authorities enlisting fifty male prisoners, armed with crowbars and sledgehammers, to break into the mess room and restrain the female convicts.
In the previous year, speculation was growing in Tasmanian newspapers about a ‘Flash Mob’, a group of women wreaking havoc in Hobart’s Cascades Factory. While authorities denied the existence of such a gang, a fellow convict named Mary Haigh insisted the Mob held influence over the factory. ‘They are the greatest blackguards in the building,’ she claimed, ‘the other women are afraid of them. They lead away the young girls by ill advice.’
Ellen and Catherine are believed to have been ringleaders of this group, with several other women of the Crime Class. Both women were released in the mid- 1840s, not long after the Flash Mob briefly dominated Hobart newspapers. Their names appear irregularly in newspapers over the next decade, usually when either woman was brought to the courts to face punishment over public drinking or ‘indecency’.
I have tried following Catherine and Ellen to the end of the line. In scouring digitised newspapers online, I’ve come across articles about women with the same names who met with tragic circumstances. As with most convict stories, it’s anyone’s guess what happened to the Flash Mob ringleaders. Memory is unforgiving to those deemed not important enough to make some sort of footnote in history.
But we do have the story of the Flash Mob, with Catherine Owens and Ellen Scott at its centre. For a brief period they were partners, and known by others to be in a sexual relationship, though its details are unknown to us. This is the dilemma of writing a history without letters and diaries: in the absence of personal records you only have the words of external parties. The women I am fascinated by remain voiceless, leaving historians and writers to piece together their ballad.
This is an edited extract from She and Her Pretty Friend by Danielle Scrimshaw, published by Ultimo Press.