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.
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 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…