Bringing History to Life – the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart

History sometimes earns the reputation of being dry, dull and boring. I put my hand up as a bit of a history-lover so I tend to look for everything good in any history talk or presentation.

You certainly don’t have to worry about being bored when you take part in the Her Story presentation at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.

Walk with me and Mary James and listen to her story…

Mary James welcomes us to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
A warm welcome from Mary.

Mary James (not her real name) was a convict at the Cascades Female Factory in colonial Hobart. She was sentenced to transportation to the penal colony for stealing a square of silk and it is her story that brings history to life.

The Factory was purpose-built in 1828 to reform female convicts. In reality, it was a life of cruelty, depravation and grinding hard work for the many 5 000 women who passed through its looming doors. These days all that remains of the Female Factory are four rough sandstone walls and, despite its simplicity, it is a World Heritage Listed site because of the significant role it played in early Australia.

Mt Wellington is the backdrop to the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
Mt Wellington or Kunanyi looms above the Factory

If you walked into and through the Factory site as an independent visitor, you may come away a little disappointed. There is very little of the old building infrastructure left and you must rely on the signs and interpretative information to understand the setting and life of its inhabitants. Standing in the brilliant sunshine on a Summer’s day it was a challenge to picture the dirt and darkness within the Factory walls or the harshness of living here through a bitter Winter with little food or clothing and no heating.

This is where the Her Story tour came in…

Her Story performance at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
Line up, Line up!

Her Story is a roaming theatre performance featuring convict Mary James, a cruel overseer and a sympathetic doctor. To be honest, I really hadn’t paid much attention to what tour we had signed up for, but realised we were in for something special when we were greeted by Mary as we walked through the doors. Mary was dressed plainly in a long, grey dress and spoke with a lilting English accent. She welcomed us as fellow convicts and shared some of her story before we were roughly called to attention by the mean and bossy overseer. He corralled us into a line up, targeting Mary for her outspokenness and cheek.

The doctor of Her Story performance at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
The Doctor describes the harsh living conditions

Over the next hour we toured the site as inmates, learning about each part of the Factory and heard Mary’s story unfold. It may be a bit hard to believe when you only have four blank walls and two actors, but we were all captivated and swept up in the drama.

At various stages in the performance Mary and the overseer would draw us into the act, sharing a joke or having us pick old ropes for oakum as part of the punishment in solitary confinement. I had to smile when I noticed us all following Mary’s lead to look over our shoulders to observe imaginary people or events. When Mary pointed at something that wasn’t there, we all looked! That’s how much she had us wrapped up in her story.

Mary in solitary confinement at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
Mary in solitary confinement

All too soon the performance was over. We had followed Mary through the highs and lows of her seven years of incarceration at the Female Factory. She had fallen foul of the inhumane overseer a number of times, been beaten mercilessly, regularly locked up in solitary confinement and generally worked into the ground. At one stage she was released to work as a servant, but was locked up again when it was discovered that she had fallen pregnant out of wedlock. After having her baby, he was taken from her after only six months to be cared for in an orphanage. Her life of drudgery seemed to be endless.

Once the performance concluded we met the husband and wife team who performed the roles of Mary and overseer/doctor. Their passion for theatre and history was evident and they happily stood and chatted, and patiently answered our questions long after the end of the tour.

The Cascades Female Factory is one of eleven Australian Convict Sites World Heritage properties. The overseer described the Factory as the poor cousin to the much larger, and better promoted Port Arthur Convict Site. He encouraged us all to use our powerful word-of-mouth to promote the Female Factory and encourage everyone to include it in a visit to Hobart. I am more than happy to do that, but to get the most out of your visit, make sure you book a guided Heritage tour or enjoy the Her Story performance like we did.

Mary and friends in solitary confinement at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
Mary recruits some friends to help her pick oakum in solitary confinement

We walked away from the Cascades Female Factory feeling like we had been entertained and truly educated. What an excellent combination. Time didn’t allow us to have a look through the rest of the complex and it will definitely be up on the top of my list when I return to Hobart one day.

A fabulous experience and one where history leapt out of my imagination and definitely came to life.

When has history come to life for you?


The Basics

What: The Her Story performance cost $25pp. Worth every cent.

Where: The Cascades Female Factory can be found at 16 Degraves St, South Hobart.

Mary at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart
Watch out! Here comes the Overseer,

When: We visited pre-Covid19 in late February 2020. The Factory is open from 930am – 4pm every day. Tours are conducted every day – check their schedule. Her Story is advertised as running for 45minutes, but allow one hour.

Why: To discover the human story behind dry, old history.

How: If you don’t mind a stroll, then follow the beautiful walking trail up the Hobart Town Rivulet to the Female Factory. It takes about 45minutes to get there on foot from the Hobart CBD.

Who: Her Story would entertain both young and old history buffs. I can only imagine what a child’s imagination would do with the performance.

Related Posts: For more convict history, check out my post about my visit to the imposing and fascinating Port Arthur Convict site.

Related Blogs: To learn more about the Female Factory, have a quick read of the research carried out by Tasmanian Archives.

Read About It: For more entertaining convict stories, pick up a copy of For the Term of History Natural Life by Marcus Clark. Wrongfully charged with a crime he did not commit, an English aristocrat is transported to Van Diemens Land to serve out his time. A classic of Australian literature.  Available from Book Depository.

A historic photo of the Cascades Female Factory. Source:Tasmanian libraries
Source: Tasmanian Libraries

#hobart #travelinspo #tasmania #convicthistory #femalefactory #historycomestolife #cascadesfemalefactory #mustsee #staycation

9 thoughts on “Bringing History to Life – the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart

  1. It was undoubtedly a harsh life back then for such a small demeanour. The trip across the seas would have been punishment enough!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree and these days some people think they are doing it hard… They wouldn’t have lasted the trip down the Thames!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hahaha, most probably 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to learn a bit of history in this manner! It makes it so much more personal. A tough life for poor Mary and many others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was a bit of learning by stealth. The whole performance was so captivating that you just took it all in. Have a great day, Mel


  3. That sounds like a truly fascinating experience. I enjoy living history experiences, so something like that would interest me on a trip to Australia. I didn’t know there were World Heritage Sites related to Australian convicts! Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am more than happy to be your tour guide when you come to Australia! I can lead you down all sorts of rabbit holes! 😉 Take care, Mel

      Liked by 1 person

  4. History brought to life in this way is a great experience, Mel, and I’ve been lucky enough to witness that kind of performance a few times. I’ve rarely wanted to trade places! 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m with you! Much better to be living in the modern day even with all the changed circumstances.

      Liked by 1 person

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