Lurid tale of Tassie Female Factory dug up for Ozri 2011

Sep 15, 2011

Spatial scientists, historians and archaeologists have used world-leading Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to unearth the unexpectedly sordid past of a 19th century Tasmanian women's prison.

The amazing story of the mapping and excavation of the 250 year-old Female Factory, located in the Tasmanian midlands township of Ross, is one of dozens of extraordinary projects that will be uncovered at Australasia’s largest spatial conference in October.

Coordinated by the nation’s leading GIS and location intelligence specialists Esri Australia, Ozri 2011 will showcase the latest developments in the spatial industry and highlight extraordinary applications of the technology – such as the history discovered at the Female Factory.

More than two centuries ago, the historical site in Ross first served as a hiring depot and overnight station for male prisoners being moved between Hobart and Launceston.

It was later converted into the Ross Female Factory, where female convicts were hired to the local gentry, in addition to learning skills such as sewing and weaving.

GIS has been central to the site’s excavation, which spatial sciences educator Darren Llewellyn said has already left historians scratching their heads.

“One of the most surprising things dug up is money, which isn’t usually found within a prison site,” Mr Llewellyn said.

“This may point to visitors, prison officials or guards coercing the female prisoners into prostitution.

“Also, although the prison housed female convicts in group sleeping quarters, a separate building constructed later contained cells built for individuals.

“One likely explanation for this is that they were built to prevent the intimate relations which developed between some of the prisoners.”

Mr Llewellyn said the Esri Australia backed GIS had played a pivotal role resolving discrepancies between the factory’s official, archived plans and what was actually built on the site.

“The prison’s plans were drafted by the Royal Engineers in Hobart Town, but in the mid-1800s the 240 kilometre return trip between Hobart and Ross could have taken a week, which meant many on-site design changes were never relayed back and recorded,” Mr Llewellyn said.

“When you take into account that the site has undergone many renovations and extensions, each with their own set of plans of which many anomalies are noted, it makes it extremely hard for archaeologists to know where to dig exactly.

“This is where GIS technology comes in – it gives us the capability to layer satellite images, topographical and ground-penetrating radar data with historical street maps over the original archived site plans.

“We can then see patterns in the relationships between these plans – such as small mounds or lines in the earth that may indicate walls or boundaries – and pinpoint the location of the buried remains.

“In this way GIS has helped fill many of the historical gaps, focus archaeological work and significantly reduce the amount of digging needed to unearth the site’s sad history.”

Esri Australia Managing Director Brett Bundock said the Female Factory’s story was an illustration of the type of GIS ingenuity to be featured at the October Ozri event.

“The work at this historical site is a perfect example of how GIS is transforming the way we understand our history and our place in the world,” Mr Bundock said.

“The Ross Female Factory’s fascinating discovery will contribute to one of the strongest line-ups of presentations and demonstrations in Ozri’s illustrious 25-year history.”