Mary Chambers, a Wigton milkmaid whose felony led her on a voyage to the other side of the world. 

Was she an unfortunate victim or an arrant thief?

Wigton's linen industry thrived in the 19th century.  Dye works, factories and mills produced calico, coarse linen, striped checks and gingham. Numerous drapers and dressmakers in the town sold cloth and clothes.  

So what drove Mary Chambers - local milkmaid, mother and tailor's wife - to steal 150 yards of cloth, 25 handkerchiefs and 6 shawls from the local merchants?  

Mary exchanged the fabric for hard cash at the pawnbrokers but when convicted as an 'arrant thief' her reward was transportation to Australia. 


In Holm Cultram her two Joseph's, husband and son, were left to pick up the threads of their lives, the latter going on to become a Master Tailor.

Women were more likely than men to be transported for a first offence.  While claiming that these women posed a moral threat to society, the Government's real agenda seems to have been to supply the new colony with breeding stock.

Prison uniform

Prison uniform

Convict Ship Surrey

And so in March 1840 Mary set sail in the convict shop Surrey.  

Reminders of the textile trade ran like yarn through the warp and weft of Mary's sad life. Minerva, the goddess of weavers, was the Surrey's figurehead.  

The Parramatta Female Factory

Mary was sent to the Parramatta Female Factory where transported women were put to work carding and weaving coarse cloth for convicts' uniforms. 

Factory life was hard.  Women died of 'hunger and hard treatment'. Transgressions were punished by head shaving and solitary confinement.  By 1842 nearly 1500 women and children lived in a space built for a sixth of that number.  Overcrowding and poor food led to riots.

Minerva, the Surrey's figurehead

Minerva, the Surrey's figurehead

The Parramatta Female Factory 

The Parramatta Female Factory 

Libidinous Settlers

The inhabitants of Parramatta had been sentenced to transportation, not imprisonment, but the Governor feared the impact of unrestrained contact with the libidinous men of the colony if they were allowed to mix freely.  Instead, in order to leave the factory they were expected to go into service or marry a settler: neat-sounding arrangements that could hide a multitude of cruelties.  

Women were treated more as goods or chattels than partners in romantic attachments. Most of those transported were of child-bearing age.  

Men would approach The Factory as if it was a slave market. The women would have to parade before the "Old Stringy Barks", as the less handsome colonists were known, fearing or hoping to catch a suitor's eye.  One or two brief visits would precede marriage.   


Whatever the circumstances, we know that Mary sought permission to marry a local man, Walter Meyer.  We will never know his intentions or whether they would have been happy together as the request was refused - Mary already had a husband back in Cumberland.  

Absconded Twice

Instead Mary was sent to work on a sheep farm for Corporal Henry Fox.  

Did he treat her badly?  Or was she a bad character?  

Either way she absconded almost immediately, was apprehended and sent back to the Corporal.  Not long after she escaped again but was recaptured within a week and this time returned to the Factory.  

Five months later she bore her second son, William Chambers who was brought up in the Factory's orphanage. His father's name was not recorded.  


Mary secured her liberty when granted a Certificate of Freedom, eight years after arriving in Australia.  But her freedom came at a price, as she once again had to leave her child behind.  

Mary's second son, William

Mary's second son, William


Some twenty years later, Joseph, still living near Wigton reported that he last heard of her living in Sydney.  

Tracing Mary's Family

Her Australian family, descended from Parramatta-born William, traced her back as far as her transportation.  The Cumbria Archives Service connected them with her English family, Joseph's descendants, uniting blood relatives who would otherwise have been ignorant of their cousins' existence.