Female Factories were established in Van Diemen's Land primarily as places of punishment for women charged with further offences after their initial sentences of transportation. The term 'Female Factory', often used confusingly and interchangeably with 'Female House of Correction', indicating the role of these institutions as more than prisons. What the new colony needed, according to Surveyor-General John Oxley in 1810, was a 'Well regulated Factory' to teach women 'habits of Industry' so that they became useful to society rather than burdens upon it.
While productivity never covered costs, later Factories were designed to keep the incarcerated women busily at work, particularly in laundries. They also housed women who could not work, either because they were ill or pregnant, or because they were nursing children. Prison, workplace, hiring depot, hospital, nursery – the Factories became major institutions for women.
The first two Factories were makeshift affairs – a house in George Town (c 1822–34); a few rooms attached to the Macquarie Street gaol in Hobart (mid-1820s to 1828). During the mid-1820s, when female transports began disembarking whole shiploads of women in Hobart, plans for a substantial institution were produced. Eventually, in 1828 a Female Factory opened on the outskirts of Hobart at the Cascades. It became the colony's largest Factory, expanding by 1853 into five major courtyards accommodating 1000 women and 175 children.
As a complex of buildings in a frequently flooded valley, the Cascades Factory suffered from the government's decision to economise by converting a rum distillery instead of designing an institution for women and their children. The colony's only purpose-built Female Factory opened at Launceston in 1834 (the fifth Factory, at Ross, was converted from a male probation station).
During the 1830s, those who entered a Female Factory were divided into three classes. At the bottom in the Third or Crime Class were women serving secondary punishment for offences such as insolence, drunkenness and being absent without leave. In the Second or Probation Class, women worked at lighter tasks and enjoyed a less meagre diet. At the top in the First or Assignable Class were women waiting to be sent into private service where settlers gave them room, board and clothes, but no wages.
After 1840 when transportation stopped to New South Wales, the influx of new arrivals put sudden and sustained pressure on the Factories. Launceston's overcrowding was somewhat relieved when a Factory opened at Ross (1848), and conditions improved at the Cascades when its functions split. On arrival, women now spent six months on the Anson hulk, moored in the Derwent. Hiring depots and the Nursery were relocated, and the Cascades were reduced to a prison. By 1850, however, with the Anson's programme of moral rescue deemed a failure, services were again consolidating at the Cascades, where the final Yard opened in the last year of transportation.
With no new arrivals, the Factories quickly shed staff and inmates. Ross closed in 1854. In 1855 at Launceston and 1856 at the Cascades, the last two Female Factories were officially proclaimed gaols and transferred to local control.