Project History

Jess’ Girls

When Jess Hill started collecting biographical information on convict women sent to New South Wales in 1970, she was amongst the first researchers to consider the agency of this maligned community. Miss Hill was a volunteer research assistant in the Society’s Library, and was known for being a reserved, polite, and curious woman.1 Her initial interest in convict women emerged from her discovery that she had a convict ancestor. However, she was quickly incensed by the difficulty accessing primary records concerning convicts, and how it was particularly onerous to uncover information on female convicts. Always firm in her convictions,  Miss Hill set out to right this archival wrong, and created an index filled with biographical details concerning female convicts sent to New South Wales. She limited her research to the early years of transportation — the years when finding a rich primary source base was the most difficult — and set about compiling an incredible range of information on individual convict women from 1788 to 1818. She became attached to the women she researched, detailing their deeds and misdeeds, and began affectionately calling them her “girls.”

Her interest in convicts, in women, and in the intersection of both was unusual for the time. Second-wave feminism emerged in Australia during the late 1960s, and by 1970 scholars were only nascently understanding women as valid historical figures worthy of attention.2 In addition, the shame of Australia’s convict past hung heavy in archives and histories; family historians and researchers alike shied away from identifying ancestors and Australian colonial pioneers as cut from a convict cloth.3 It was not until the Australian bicentenary of 1988 that convict heritage became a popular source of national pride.4 By examining the lives of female convicts in 1970, then, Miss Hill was focusing on a doubly ignored and denigrated group of individuals. Her research, her care, and her dedication helped give back the convict women’s humanity lost to annals of history. 

Archives of Jess Hill’s research
Original Research by Jess Hill

In 2008, renowned Australian colonial historian Babette Smith discussed the role of family historians in breaking down the negative connotations and shameful secrecy associated with the convict legacy, arguing that “Given the censorship about the country’s origins, there is no country in the world where family historians are more important than in Australia… by tracing their family story they are uncovering the nub of the nation’s history, providing information that they are uniquely placed to contribute.”5 Jess Hill was undoubtedly one of the family historians who contributed greatly to our understanding of convict lives, and opened up new avenues of interest and research in convict women, long before it was socially acceptable or popular to do so. 

The team at Ironclad Sisterhood was never able to meet Jess Hill, as she died with her list of girls incomplete in 1995. Those who did know her, told me that her tiny stature belied her ferocious tenacity and creative research skills. They told me stories of how she would carry her girls around with her in plastic bags, their biographical details written neatly and uniformly on bank deposit slips taken, for free, from the local bank. Heather Garnsey, former Chief Executive Officer of the Society, shared one moment when Miss Hill, finished for the day after helping members with their research at Richmond Villa, got into her car and drove off with all of her research notes left on the ground. Miss Garnsey then had to call Miss Hill and assure her that she had Jess’ girls, and that they were quite safe back at the Villa. Miss Hill was quiet, and did not like a fuss, and was determined above all else to conduct rigorous and thorough research. 

When Miss Hill died, her fellow research assistant at the Library, Mrs Jill Roy, helped decipher the incomplete research notes and biographical information and compile a final typed manuscript. A generous donation by Miss Hill’s sister, Mrs Olga Newton, made the microfilming of Jess’ Girls possible. Miss Hill’s work was well known by Society members and volunteers, but had seldom been used outside of the Society. In addition, her index was used with decreasing frequency as convicts became a badge of pride and honour in Australian society, and resultantly convict records became much more easily accessible. 

Jess’ Girls and the Digital Age

Jess’ Girls were part of the Archives for decades before Alexandra joined the Society as Archives Manager in 2022. New to the position, when she was asked to present collection materials to the Colonial Australia Research Group, she did what any historian worth their salt would do: she asked someone who knew more than me to point me in the right direction. Both Danielle Lautrec and Alison Wolf, volunteers in the Archive, suggested Alexandra look at Jess’ Girls, and use her research in the presentation. Alexandra was astonished by the sheer volume and breadth of research conducted by Jess Hill. It was quickly apparent to Alexandra how much Miss Hill cared about the women she had indexed; a strange feeling, given Alexandra was simply reading short biographies with a list of resources on a realm of papers from a dot-matrix printed list — about as impersonal as a stack of paper could be imagined. But despite the format, despite the emotionless and succinct listings of details, she was drawn into the stories of Jess’ Girls.

The kernel of what this project would become started when Andrew Redfern immediately reached out to Alex following the group meeting, and asked what she was planning on doing with Miss Hill’s work. His enthusiasm, technical skills, and creativity quickly transformed the possibilities of Jess’ Girls. Andrew, more than anyone, understood the incredible resource sitting at our fingertips, and wanted to share Miss Hill’s work widely. It also helped that Andrew’s four-time great-grandmother, Margaret Humphreys, was one of Jess’ Girls.

Andrew and Alexandra agreed that the first step to do so would be to digitise the paper copies of Jess’ Girls from the Archives. Andrew scanned every page himself (over 500 of them!), and started transcribing the information on the index into a spreadsheet, focusing only on the names of ships, the year of arrival, and the first and surname of the convict women. As Andrew and Alexandra talked further, however, we saw a real opportunity to not just make Miss Hill’s research more widely available via a digital database, but to also look closely into the lives of Jess’ Girls. This crystalised for Andrew and Alexandra as a focus on the macro and the micro: understanding the macro social trends of convict women, only discoverable through an analysis of a large scale dataset; and the digging deep into the micro, focusing on imagining the rich details of each convict women’s life, found through Miss Hill’s exhaustive research. 

We were uncertain of the format that these ideals would take, but we knew that we would need more creative minds to help us achieve our goals. We reached out to Society member, Dr. Tanya Evans, and signed up to provide student internships for her Macquarie University’s Cultural Heritage and Public History course in early 2023. Put bluntly, Andrew and Alexandra struck gold with the three students who signed up to be a part of the Jess’ Girls project. Georgia Charlier, Alexandra Scouller, and Christina Wisniewski were engaged with the work and the process from the beginning, surprising us with the speed with which they transcribed from Miss Hill’s index. Crucially, however, they were immediately emotionally invested in the lives of the convict women, and started noticing trends in the data they were transcribing — how, for example, women on the second fleet had a much shorter lifespan once in the colonies than women who arrived on different ships. 

It was once Andrew, Georgia, Alex, Christina and Alexandra worked together that we realised the true potential of our project focused on Jess’ Girls. We wanted our online database and website to be a resource, a collaborative space that connected with other researchers working on convict women, a creative workshop that reimagined the lives of convict women; a place where researchers, historians, and family historians could converge and work together. We decided that in addition to the searchable database, we would also produce a number of creative imaginations of convict women, highlighting their untold stories. 

This is just the beginning for Ironclad Sisterhood. It has been an emotional journey to bring Miss Hill’s research to light, and we see the possibilities of the project as ever expanding. We are thrilled to be partnering with some of the most respected heritage groups working with colonial Australian stories, like the Parramatta Female Factory Friends, and look forward to continuing to expand our collaborative efforts. Above all else, we hope Ironclad Sisterhood is a space where like-minded people can come together to unearth new understandings of convict women, focused on their experiences above all else — whether they are tragic or hopeful, a tale of redemption or of forsaken damnation. We hope that Miss Hill would see the value in our work, taking her girls and trying to bring their stories to light. 


1 Heather Garnsey, “Miss Jessie May Hill, FSAG” Descent 25, No. 3 (1995): 122-123.
2 See: Ann Curthroy, “Gender Studies in Australia: A History” in Australian Feminist Studies 15, No. 31, (2000): 19-38.
3 David Andrew Roberts, “Beyond ‘the stain’: Rethinking the nature and impact of the anti-transportation movement” in Colonial Australian History 14 (2012): 205–279.
4 It must be noted that Australia’s Bicentennial celebrates the British invasion of the Australian continent, an event that has traumatically and violently impacted the First Nations peoples for generations since. For context, see: Jan Pettman, “Learning about power and powerlessness: Aborigines and white Australia’s Bicentenary” in Race & Class 29, No. 3 (1988): 69-85.
Babette Smith, Australia’s Birthstain: The Startling Legacy of the Convict Era (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2008): xii.
5 Babette Smith, Australia’s Birthstain: The Startling Legacy of the Convict Era (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2008): xii.