The day in 1827 when Irish women convicts broke through their Australian prison gates

The Irish female convicts who launched Australia’s first industrial action were starving

Between 1791 and 1867, more than 40,000 convicts were shipped from Ireland to the penal colonies of Australia. Many of the women transported to New South Wales were sent to Parramatta Female Factory, a workhouse that also functioned as a prison, assignment depot, marriage bureau and hospital.

On October 27th, 1827, Irish convicts were among the throng of inmates who broke through the institution’s gates in protest at cuts to their food allowance. Armed with axes and crowbars, they poured into the town of Parramatta in New South Wales and filled their aprons with whatever provisions could be found.

Some bakers threw loaves of bread out on to the streets in the hope of keeping them out of their shops. At a butcher’s stall, a number of the women shouted “starvation” as they tore down a hanging piece of meat.

Constables rushed after the escapees with bayonets, eventually rounding many of them up. The women were taken back to their quarters under a military escort, but about 100 remained missing in the days after the breakout. Only a month later were the final two escapees found, 210km away.


It has been described as the first workers’ action in Australia, but contemporary observers were predictably dismissive. One newspaper dismissed the scenes as “factory frolics”, mockingly comparing the protesters to the “gentle poissards of the French Revolution”. In another report, they were termed “Amazonian banditti”.

We have few traces of the convicts’ voices, but it is clear that their protest had been a long time coming. Gay Hendriksen of the Parramatta Female Factory Friends has noted that the riot was “not an impulsive response, but the final act after a long period of poor conditions”, including a shortage of food, water and clothing.

A year before, an Irish inmate named Mary Hamilton had died of hunger and poor treatment. The former domestic servant had reportedly been so famished that she resorted to eating bones and weeds found in the factory. She had been transported to Australia for stealing candles.

The second half of 1827 saw a growing number of offences punished by factory authorities. A few days before the riot, Elizabeth Raine, Parramatta’s matron, had reduced rations even further. In response, around 14 women refused to return to work.

Tensions escalated to the point that Raine had to be rescued by constables, apparently having been attacked. She was replaced the following day by a new matron, Anne Gordon, who sought to assert authority by calling a halt to bread and sugar supplies.

It was at this point that the women made their break.

Hendriksen has traced some of the many Irish convicts who took part in the action. Among them were Julia Burke, Catherine Byrne, Anne Blake and Bridget Shelton, who left Cork in 1826, sailing to New South Wales on the ship Brothers. Anne Nugent was transported from Ireland in that same year, arriving on the Lady Rowena.

All of them had been sentenced to seven years’ transportation for minor crimes such as theft. Byrne, a Wexford woman of around 21, had been convicted of “stealing clothes”. Nugent, who was about the same age, had apparently stolen a watch while working as a domestic servant in Dublin.

But there was little public sympathy for such women.

The historian Babette Smith has written that descriptions of woman convicts were “virtually unanimous in their picture of degraded, dissolute, worthless people”. While Parramatta might have been envisaged as a place of reform, “the theory that ‘the criminal classes’ were a race apart, irreclaimable and perhaps genetically determined was highly regarded”.

Today, the protest is commemorated with an annual event known as Riot Day, organised by the Parramatta Female Factory Friends.

Every October, people gather at the old factory to pay tribute to those woman convicts who downed tools and escaped into the town. The women shipped to the other side of the world and put into places like Parramatta had every reason to be cowed into submission.

But poor and disparaged as they were, they never lost sight of their rights.

  • This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Catherine Healy, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.
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