Mary Hutchinson

Mary Hutchinson (1810-1880), 'factory' matron, was born on 23 October l810 at Parramatta, New South Wales, third daughter and one of fourteen children of Rebecca (born Small) and Francis Oakes, missionaries. Her childhood was spent in Parramatta in close proximity to the old 'female factory' where her father was superintendent (1814-22). Mary attended James Bradley's seminary. On 2 May 1826 she married John Hutchinson, Wesleyan minister and missionary. They went to Tonga to start a Christian mission but were eventually driven to retreat.

From Windsor, New South Wales (1828-30), they went to Hobart, where in 1832 John Hutchinson was appointed superintendent, and Mrs Hutchinson matron, of the Female House of Correction, commonly referred to as the female factory, and situated at Cascades. Her first child, born on Tonga, died while they were at Windsor. More children followed, twelve in all, of whom six died in infancy.

As matron Mrs Hutchinson had special responsibility for the health and behaviour of inmates. The original building was a distillery, purchased in 1827 and hastily converted to accommodate women prisoners when the numbers transported rose in the late 1820s. Despite alterations and extensions it was never suitable accommodation for the overlapping purposes of an institution which was gaol, workshop, hospital, nursery and (in theory) a reformatory.

The matron's problems were compounded by the further increase in the numbers transported, both in the 1830s and more markedly in the 1840s after transportation to New South Wales had ended, and by changing emphases in British penal policy. Assignment on arrival was replaced (in theory) by supervised labour, then restored, and later a worktask system operated. Very little could be manufactured which was commercially competitive when outside factories operated with steam- powered machinery. The women did laundry and needlework. Many were idle for long periods and a 'flash mob' caused trouble. The more enduring problem was the health of inmates. A diet which was barely adequate for healthy adults (though supplemented for pregnant women) probably left inmates irritable and susceptible to respiratory diseases. Mortality was high and especially among infants who were routinely separated from their mothers on being weaned.

Her husband's recurring illnesses left Mrs Hutchinson in control of an institution which by 1850 housed over 1000 women; her discipline was effective and commented upon. Lieut Colonel G.C.Mundy who inspected the factory in 1851 wrote: 'The cleanliness of the prison was almost dazzling, and the order and discipline appeared faultless'. 'Dead silence' everywhere was observed.

Periodically however Mrs Hutchinson was subjected to a barrage of press criticism. Some of it, notably a spate of unfavourable reports in 1838 when the continuation of transportation was in question, was due as much to a wish to be rid of the taint of convictism as to any particular defect in her administration. Criticism arose also from the expectation that properly organised punishment should bring about the reformation of prisoners. Mrs Hutchinson believed behaviour could be improved by housing women in small groups, but that was never a possibility. Conditions slowly improved. The old barracks were used to house new arrivals, new quarters were provided for women with children, looms were installed and a points system introduced.

When ill health forced John Hutchinson's retirement in 1851, his wife's continued employment 'as a subordinate in the Establishment of which she had been virtually the Superintendent' was considered undesirable; as a woman she was not thought suitable to be Superintendent. She was permitted appointment as matron-in-charge of the smaller Launceston 'factory' where she remained until 31 August 1854 when she retired on a pension of 60 pounds. She died in Hobart on 19 February 1880. Few of her many critics and fewer still of those who perpetuated the myth of factory debauchery, ever visited Mrs Hutchinson's 'factory'.

Heather Radi

R.C.Hutchinson, 'Mrs Hutchinson and the Female Factories of Early Australia' Tasmanian Historical Research Association Papers and Proceedings Dec 1963 pp 50-67.