National Heritage List inscription date 14 November 2017
From 1821 onwards, tens of thousands of women and children passed through the Parramatta Female Factory and Institutions Precinct in the care and custody of the state.
The Precinct, which housed female convicts, orphaned children, and vulnerable girls and young women, is a leading example of a site which demonstrates Australia’s social welfare history.
Institutionalisation was a core part of Australia’s welfare system over two centuries, and the Precinct is outstanding in its capacity to tell the stories of women and children in institutions over the course of Australian history. It includes a rare surviving example of a convict female factory, and offers us the opportunity to find out even more about convicts experiences as a potential source of future archaeological finds.
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The Lives of Women and Children in Care
Today, the Parramatta Female Factory and Institutions Precinct is a collection of early 19th to late 20th century buildings beside the Parramatta River. It is a physical reminder of the key role that institutionalisation played in Australia’s social welfare system from the early years of colonisation onwards. From 1821 until 2008, almost 200 years, the Precinct was the site of state and church-run institutions which sought to provide care for women and children. The Precinct demonstrates how colonial and state governments chose to address the perceived problem of vulnerable women and children, who they regarded as needing protection and control, through the use of institutions as a core element of the welfare system. In particular the Precinct provides a record of how women and children as a class had a distinct experience of 'benevolent' institutions, where the purpose and promise of care was far from the reality.
The Precinct was the site of the convict-era Parramatta Female Factory, a Roman Catholic Orphan School and the Parramatta Girls Industrial School, a home for disadvantaged or ‘wayward’ girls. Its continuous use through the 19th and 20th centuries shows how government attitudes towards women and children in need of support changed little for more than 150 years. Women living without the oversight of a husband or family were subject to moral judgment, and authorities felt the need to step in as decision-maker and moral guardian, both of the women and of their children.
Government attempts to safeguard those women and children, including Indigenous children of the Stolen Generations, were consistently limited by paternalism and poor treatment. The reality of life under 'benevolent' institutions within the Precinct fell far short of the promised care and protection. The perimeter walls, isolation rooms, shower blocks, enclosed courtyards, assembly spaces, and long, narrow attic dormitory spaces that survive on the site to this day give a sense of what life was like for those who passed through the Precinct.
A Rare Remnant of Convictism
Convict female factories are rare sites. Of the 12 established in Australia, only three remain today. The Parramatta Female Factory, completed in 1821 as Australia’s earliest purpose-built female convict site, was the first destination for convict women sent to colonial Sydney. It was a place of work and punishment, a marriage bureau, a labour hire depot, and a shelter for ill, pregnant or unemployed women.
While there are a range of sites associated with male convicts, such as gaols, probation stations, mines and convict-built infrastructure, there were fewer sites associated with convict women. The Parramatta Female Factory and Institutions Precinct demonstrates the nature of female convicts’ experiences and reflect the social attitudes towards them at the time.
Vestiges of Convict Lives
The experiences and perspectives of convict women are often hard to discover in traditional historical records such as government papers and court records. Both the buildings and the archaeological artefacts of the Parramatta Female Factory and Institutions Precinct may have more to reveal about the unofficial and unwritten stories of those who lived there. The hidden, lost and discarded artefacts of convict women, the buildings that remain, and the sites of those that were demolished all hold potential for further research and discovery.
Acknowledging Parramatta's Women and Children
The institutions of the Parramatta Female Factory and Institutions Precinct were places where many women and children suffered greatly under the authority of those who were meant to care for and protect them. Many of the convict women transported to the colony of New South Wales were forced to leave their children behind. For those who ended up in the Female Factory, a further loss was visited upon them when children who accompanied them were forcibly removed and placed in Orphan Schools. Recognising the history of this Precinct allows Australians to remember and serve witness to these women, their children and the children of later generations who experienced out-of-home care, known as the Forgotten Australians, Child Migrants and Stolen Generations – a recognition that they were not afforded while confined to the institutions of the Precinct.
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