We stood, like stacks of bobbins
bursting over the road,
the Ogden River bubbled,
simmering over awkward stones,
the scarred hills leaned into Middle Mill.
Four hundred cheers helped
split the cleaved door.
Men smashed cast iron frames,
slashed leather driving belts,
mashed beams, buckled yells.
Women snapped shuttles, reeds,
ripped the rippling yarns.
We yanked the power from the maw
of those machines as they’d
grabbed the food from ours.
I’d woven the worsted of the dress
I wore that day myself,
a chill still fed the April air.
Back on the cobbles again,
shouting for our men
I felt a tug behind, heard a scissor clip.
Loyal Holt hid his hand—
a piece of cloth from my skirt for proof.
For slats of the day I let my mind
bend beyond these prison walls,
to the day I married beneath a blood red arch,
my husband’s face held in a hurried smile,
the ochre light glazing his hazel hair,
to the day dear Elizabeth screamed at the font.
I trailed her fingers over shapes around the bowl—
heart, goat, a pair of clutching sheers.
The cold stone calmed her for a while.
I will not think of Abraham or Robert—
their palms grew no wider than a leaf.
The hills are their fathers,
the scorching grass reaches over them in summer,
crisp with frost by November dusks.
No, I will not think of them.
My arms harbour memories of throwing the shuttle,
whipping it through the weft,
they flinch for want of warp and yell.
My feet flex, searching for wooden peddles,
to pull the pulleys, raise a shed.
My hair is frayed, my curls are gone,
I’m bald as a loom without a thread.
A yell is a heddle or heald—the looped wires through which the warp yarn is threaded on a loom.
A shed is the area between the upper and lower warp yarns through which the shuttle passes to weave the weft.
Should I think myself lucky
when the candles go out at nine?
The sour stink of sweat can’t get much worse,
there’s boiled beef, herring, cheese,
more than I’d ever see at Pleasant Street.
Antimony and nitrates ease my lungs.
And I’m to live.
I’ll not see the Drop Room now,
feel the rope smooth around my throat.
I’m to be made an example,
with my manufacturing husband,
his churchwarden father.
Death has been exchanged,
I’m to be flung to a foreign country
for life, if a life would be its name.
What I want is my husband’s shoulder,
my hand sliding round his cheek,
his mouth finding mine,
the heat of our bodies confounding
the cool night air.
Instead I’m in this vicious sleeping room,
dank and dark as a vixen’s lair.
She-lag number 32
Two days fettered to the outside of a stagecoach,
irons pounding my wrists and ankles,
my bones near shook themselves free of their joints.
When I thought I could no longer stand it
I pushed one scene into my mind—
George and Elizabeth hurtling
towards my arms as the turnkey looked on,
peering into their slate blue eyes,
forcing down my chest pain,
gathering up their velvet words.
I knew them then as I never would again.
I huddle below deck on this dripping ship,
the Harmony, she-lag number 32,
waiting for our quota of skinners,
till-friskers, murders, perjurers.
I stroke my arm, remember the down
on Elizabeth’s skin.
Letter to my husband, 12 November 1827, Sydney
I hope these few lines find you well.
For three weeks of the five month voyage
I lay in a hospital bed.
I’m healthy now, Thank God.
My master is kind but his family is large,
six children to wash for,
sewing and nursing, one child in arms.
Each day longer than a month.
I hope my daughter is took good care of,
I am thinking of her often.
We have no liberty. Stay out late or stray
and we are pushed in the Watchhouse.
Or sent to the women’s factory for punishment.
Please give my kind love
to my mother, your father and mother,
my brothers and sisters, all enquiring friends.
Sydney is a very fine town, a deal of building going on.
Will my sentence be mitigated?
I should die of despair if I thought
you could not get something done.
Please give my respects to Mr Hurst, Mr Turner.
You talk of coming to New South Wales,
there is none of your trade here.
In fact no manufacturing at all.
Butter and eggs are very dear, poultry dear in general.
I hope and trust that none I know
will share this fate with me.
You must answer this letter quickly,
I shall be anxious to hear from you.
Send all particulars of my little girl.
Please pay the postage when you write.
Eighteen thousand miles is the distance I am from you.
Parramatta River, August
I could keep on absconding, crawling
through the ridged hole in the outside wall,
could keep on being caught,
confined to cell, fed on bread and water,
wearing the cold weight of spiked iron around
my waning neck. Or I could
slide my foot inside this river, slip slowly
down the sandy bank, drop
like a stone beneath the silky surface. Have done.
Yearning ploughs me up, its
blade cuts me to the bone. This way
I’d find some peace. God may forgive me.
I want to feel the water creep up my thighs,
my belly, my aching arms. I want
its presence on my lips, filling my ears,
smoothing my stifled hair.
Come. Push yourself forward. Let
the river fill you up, let it make a statue
in its waves, holding my image in its depths
for the rest of this worn out winter.
Mary Hindle was born in Haslingden, East Lancashire in 1799. After the machine breakers riots of 1826 she was probably one of the first female political prisoners to be transported to Australia. She ran away twice from the Parramatta Female Factory in New South Wales and took her own life on August 21, 1841, aged forty-two.