History Herstory Our Story: Parramatta Female Factory – 200 Years

The foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory was laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The bicentennial of this event was marked by a community gathering in which stories of women, children and men who were linked to the history of this place were acknowledged.

The day’s events included a dedication ceremony, historical re-enactments, speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative wall. There was also a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Barramattagal ancestral ground.

The Parramatta Female Factory was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in response to the growing challenge of creating an environment where convict women could be housed, gainfully employed, be selected as possible servants or wives, and punished if required.

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

The role of women in the colonial society was contentious on various fronts, and not least of all because the female population was significantly lower than that of men. An anonymous letter had been sent to Earl Bathurst accusing Macquarie of condoning prostitution by not providing accommodation for unmarried women. Macquarie had requested approval to build accommodation previously but had been denied. Reverend Samuel Marsden had plans already drawn up; these plans were passed on to Colonial Architect Francis Greenway by Macquarie. The plans were to build a factory and barracks to lodge 300 women on four acres enclosed by a nine-foot stone wall.

The factory model was used for a further twelve factories around the state and the country as the colony expanded. It was to be built alongside the Parramatta River, in part to provide access to the river for spinning flax and bleaching linen. Government House was on the other side. The Factory “stood on the edge of its large barren grounds as if straining across the river to the settlement.” (Macquarie’s World, Marjorie Barnard).

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Factories were designed with multiple purposes in mind including British bridewells, workhouse and prison. Various work was carried out by women on the site, including producing linen, wool picking and spinning, stone breaking and working within the factory itself. It is estimated that about 5,000 women passed through the Parramatta factory. Women were employed as servants by private settlers and returned for various reasons, such as reassignment, the birth of children or court-ordered punishments.

The site had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and poor conditions, and there were various riots at the site as a result. A class system was put in place to separate women eligible for assignment, women approaching the end of their imprisonment, and women who had committed crimes in the colony or had broken the strict factory rules.

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

In Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, a handbook to an exhibition compiled by various researchers and contributors, it is noted that it was estimated that at least 25,000 convict women were transported to Australia. Of these, between nine and ten thousand are estimated to have passed through one of the colonial convict female factories. There were two in Parramatta (the original one had been located above the gaol) and two in Moreton Bay; others were located at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, Ross and George Town. Many of the factories were developed as adjuncts to gaols.

The description below of a typical journey to the Parramatta Female Factory is from A History of Australia (Volume 1) by Manning Clark.

These women were taken by boat from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. This journey lasted from morning to evening in fair weather, but with an adverse wind darkness came down before the end of the journey, when great irregularities took place and the women frequently arrived at Parramatta in a state of intoxication and plundered of their property, to begin their servitude the next day in destitution and on a hangover. By an odd irony this was generally their first experience of life in a colony which had been created for their reformation as well as their punishment.

The Factory, located in Fleet Street in North Parramatta, formed part of a complex of government buildings in the Parramatta area which played an important part in the development of the colony of New South Wales. Some of the original factory buildings remain; others were demolished when the site was later repurposed as an asylum. The high walls that are a familiar sight in locations including Gladesville Hospital (a custom built asylum) are present here too. The factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital complex, under Western Sydney Health, and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which incorporates the Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School (later Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home) has been in continuous use as an institutional site since 1818.

Hospital administration building, built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

Hospital administration building built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

A walk around the grounds shows a mix of heritage sandstone buildings and other buildings from different decades. On one perimeter there are the high walls of the defunct Parramatta Gaol. A short bridge over the Parramatta River provides access to the modern Cumberland Hospital.

There were a variety of stall and historic displays set up in the airing yard, a grassed space protected on three sides by sandstone buildings. Beyond a fence, the ground slopes down to the river and there was much bird activity and a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They were mainly suspended from branches, tightly bound and resting, but the group of noisy people below may have been disturbing them as there were regular squawks and squabbles as positions were jockeyed for and the odd bat took to the sky before circling back to nudge someone else out of position.

Grey-headed flying fox

Grey-headed flying fox

Other colourful displays during the day included several people dressed in historical costume, including a man playing the role of Samuel Marsden (with a flogging whip, striding about and asking who the owners of children were), a schoolmistress and a matron. They provided a lively touch to what was, for the most part, a day of sharing family stories connected to a difficult time and place in our history.

Historic Actors at Commemoration

Historic Actors at Commemoration

As part of the bicentennial ceremony, following a number of interesting and personal speeches commemorating some of the many women and children who passed through the factory site, a plaque was unveiled. This contains the first names of some of the women who entered the factory gates as part of their journey through the colony.

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

There is an excellent site created by the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association Incorporated (Parragirls) which provides an overview of the site over its many decades of institutional life. There are common – and devastating – echoes across generations of women with stories linked to the area.

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Woodford Academy, Oldest Building in the Blue Mountains

From its origins as a roadside inn, the Woodford Academy on the Great Western Highway has seen a variety of uses over the years. It started out as a weatherboard and stone inn called the ‘Sign of the Woodman’ in 1834, providing accommodation for 10 people and stables for passing travellers.

During the early decades of the 19th century, the Great Western Road to Bathurst was a journey of up to four days. Twenty Mile Hollow (now known as Woodford) was a popular stop at the end of the second day of travel, between Springwood and Blackheath on the road west.  The pub was rebuilt and expanded further during the gold rush years of the 1850s onwards, when it was known as the King’s Arms. In 1868, it was bought by Alfred Fairfax as a gentleman’s residence, and he renamed it Woodford House.

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Old taproom with shelves marked out and a centrepiece of grapes, peaches and corn above the door

The alternations, extensions and repurposing of the property helped to ensure its survival. Various uses included as a guest house, licensed hotel, boarding house, private hospital and a boarding school, when it became known as the Woodford Academy. From the late 1930s onwards it was a private home until Gertie McManamey, daughter of scholar and principal of the Woodford Academy, bequeathed the property to the National Trust in 1979.

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Old schoolroom at Woodford Academy

Aboriginal heritage in the area is acknowledged; the nearby reserve has an engraved groove in a sandstone platform, considered likely to be a signpost or signal to assist travelling Aborigines.

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View from bedroom in loft looking towards Great Western Highway

From foot traffic to horse and carts, wagons to motor vehicles, the passing parade of people heading west has been viewed from this site. The loft area above the residence is accessed through tight wooden stairs. The rooms offer views of the highway, gardens and courtyard. The property has a central courtyard area, reminiscent of Rouse Hill House, with access to washrooms, kitchen, laundry and stable areas.

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Kitchen, including stone sink

Throughout the property there are series of photos celebrating previous eras, highlighting the many lives the property has had. Memorabilia in the rooms provide insights into what life was like in earlier times, before the arrival of electricity, sewerage and running water.

On the day of my visit the academy was doubling as an exhibition space, continuing to provide a place for people to come and gather and experience something unique.

[Photo: front of Woodford Academy from Great Western Highway, Woodford]

 

A History Lesson

Recently I attended a talk by Grace Karskens, a noted colonial historian. Her published works include The Rocks and The Colony. Karsken’s talk was about her upcoming book, Recovering Vanished Places: Stories from the Hawkesbury/Nepean River.

History is approached by Karskens by an ethnographic focus, a wide lens which includes archaeology, ecology and geography amongst other studies. Sources range from official documents and historical texts to newspaper articles, paintings, local and family histories, letters, poetry and folklore to provides a broader context to understanding history on a deeper level.

Part of the challenge lies in what cannot be found or ascertained. Of course not everything is recorded or accessible, and sometimes all that remains is a sanitised version of real events.

Something that resonated with me was the snatches and snippets of past events that are woven into stories. As a writer I feel at times that my mind is swirling with scraps of stories, real and imagined. Some are recent, others are not my memory fragments but those of parents, grandparents and other relatives. And it isn’t just family that provide threads to weave stories from; chance conversations with friends and strangers also provide material.

Whilst some fictional scribblings require little in the way of research, unlike academic endeavours, it was interesting to hear Karskens talk of how obsessive the need to know can become. It is this attention to detail and intellectual vigour which creates work which resonates with readers. Again this has similarities in the fictional space. Research is an important aspect across many genres: as a reader few things jar more than reading something factually wrong in a story.

The talk provided a taste of what is to come, a book which promises accessible and illuminating insights into vanished places along the Hawkesbury and Nepean Rivers. There is a link to a TED talk by Karskens here.

What lessons from history do you take on as a writer?

[Photo: view of Hawkesbury River near Wisemans Ferry]

A Meander Around Molong

Molong is a small country town about 300 km west of Sydney on the Mitchell Highway, and about 45 km north-west of Orange. The highway skirts around the town itself, but it is worth stopping for a while and having a look around the commercial centre of Molong.

Old Bank and Post Office in Bank Street, Molong

Old Bank and Post Office in Bank Street, Molong

The township of Molong began as a government stockyard in 1845, and copper mining also began in the area at this time. This was the first metalliferous working in New South Wales. The first land grant was at Larras Lee, still marked by a stone monument along the highway into town. Travelling from Orange to Molong, the turn off to Yuranigh’s gravesite is signposted, and the remnants of the Fairbridge Farm School can be seen before the rows of poplar trees mark the entrance into the town. Molong is derived from a Wiradjuri word, believed to mean a place of many rocks, and there are many limestone outcrops through this part of the countryside.

Cobb & Co Coach House, Molong

Cobb & Co Coach House, Molong

The main street of Molong, Bank Street, is classified by the National Trust. Heritage buildings line the street from the old railway station past old banks and the post office, beyond the town hall and towards the residential areas of the town. They evoke a different time, and many of them were built during the 1870s and 1880s when the town expanded as the extension of the railway line provided confidence in Molong’s future. Insight into town life in 1871 can be found here.

Old shop fronts in Molong

Old shop fronts in Molong

With a small population of about 1500, the town is remarkably vibrant. On the Friday afternoon when I passed through, most of the shops were open offering everything from antiques and second-hand books to gelato and pies. There were galleries and gift shops along with a small group of locals running a fundraiser. It is still one of those places where locals take the time to smile and say hello to people as they pass by.

Molong Railway Station, now a library

Molong Railway Station, now a library

The railway station is now a library. It was built in 1885 in preparation for the arrival of the railway in 1886. From 1886 to 1893, Molong was the terminus of the Sydney line.

Telegraph Hotel, Molong

Telegraph Hotel, Molong

The Telegraph Hotel dates from around 1880, and was extensively renovated in 1910.

The Western Stores, Molong

The Western Stores, Molong

Many central west towns still have the old Western Stores shop fronts in their main streets, and Molong is no exception. The Western Stores and Edgleys Ltd was a group of department stores operating in western and central western New South Wales. In the 1960s the group was purchased by Farmers & Co of Sydney, and subsequently purchased by Grace Bros (now Myer). Part of this building is now a supermarket.

When was the last time you took a detour from the highway to discover a hidden gem?

[Photo: streetscape of Molong, looking down Bank Street from the Town Hall]

 

 

Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge

In a pocket of land alongside the Great Western Highway at Faulconbridge there is a slowly expanding collection of oaks, planted in honour of Australian Prime Ministers. It is modestly signposted but easy to find, and on the Sunday afternoon when I visited recently, it was relatively quiet despite the nearby traffic and train line.

Whilst I’ve visited the Corridor of Oaks before, it was still quite a surprise to see the extensive planting of oak trees in honour of Prime Ministers. There have been 29 Prime Ministers to date since 1901. Several have served multiple terms such as Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes (from 1915 to 1923 but under three separate parties) and Kevin Rudd.

Caretaker Prime Ministers are represented as well, even if their time in office was relatively fleeting, covering the period from the resignation or death of the previous office holder until the election of the next Prime Minister.

The most recent planting was by Julia Gillard on 27 July 2017, the 27th tree to be added to the Corridor. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull are yet to plant their trees: by tradition the trees are planted by the Prime Minister or a close family member.

The Corridor is on land donated by Joseph Jackson, a member of the NSW Parliament from 1922 until 1956. Jackson owned the former home of Sir Henry Parkes, known as the Father of Federation, at Faulconbridge at the time of the bequest. Jackson had a vision of the growing avenue as a living memorial to Parkes and his role in bringing the states together into a federation. When he began the memorial in 1934, there had only been nine Prime Ministers.

The Corridor of Oaks is a fitting tribute to our country’s leaders, and is a lovely place to visit.

[Photo: Corridor of Oaks, Faulconbridge]

 

A Whistle-stop Tour of Hobart

Hobart is Australia’s second oldest city, and this heritage is one of its main attractions for tourists. To get my bearings on a recent trip to Hobart, I joined a morning tour of some of the sites of this city scalloped around the Derwent River, beneath the magnificent Mount Wellington.

Salamanca Bay, Hobart

Salamanca Bay, Hobart

The tour departed from the waterfront, along Sullivans Cove. Harbour cruises and trips to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, leave from here. Hobart is still a working harbour, and there were plenty of fishing boats as well as the huge Antarctic icebreaker Aurora Australis in dock. We passed through the sandstone glory of Salamanca Place, a very popular tourist destination with lots of cafes and restaurants as well as artisans selling their wares. You can wander through and see artists at work whilst admiring the old sandstone warehouses and stairways and pubs. On Saturdays there is a huge outdoor market, selling all sorts of fresh produce and locally made goods.

St George's Anglican Church

St George’s Anglican Church

Battery Point offers views of the river, and one of the warehouses has a large chimney which was for the fire that was kept going all day and night to ensure that gunpowder was kept dry. We wound our way past the official finish line for the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and through narrow, winding streets that clutch to the hills behind. We paused at St George’s Anglican Church which had been a landmark for sailors for decades. Along the way there were scores of cottages and grand houses with neat gardens, some with drawn curtains offering glimpses of stylish and antique furnishings inside.

Memorials at the Anglesea Barracks - 99th Regiment Column and Peacekeeper

Memorials at the Anglesea Barracks – 99th Regiment Column on far left and Peacekeeper

Anglesea Barracks was the next stop, one of the oldest continually operating barracks in Australia – as the second oldest city, and one with a tighter grip on its history than some, there are many ‘oldest’ tags. There were a few memorials including headstones patched into a wall, a memorial arch and a column commemorating Regiment 99, which served during the New Zealand Maori wars in the 1850s. This was the first war memorial in Australia, and was erected by a British regiment serving in Australia. Nearby there is a striking statue of a peacekeeper, bearing aloft a child, which was carved from a single piece of wood and knocked into rough shape with a chainsaw before the finer carving was done.

Cascade Female Factory - clothesline

Cascade Female Factory – clothesline

Cascade Gardens is a pleasant spot with a winding path towards Cascade Brewery, a magnificent old industrial building set against the backdrop of Mount Wellington. The beer, cider and soft drinks are made using water that cascades from the mountain. Just a little further down the hill are the remains of the Cascades Female Factory. This predates the Port Arthur Historic site, and was erected to keep female convicts separate. There isn’t much left in the way of buildings, although yards and areas such as laundry and crib rooms are marked out and snatches of official reports attest to the conditions. Even on a day of winter sunshine it is hard not to feel a taste of the despair that would have cloaked any new arrival, trapped within the walls with extremely basic living conditions. The nearby rivulet often flooded the prison. It is a quietly devastating place.

Hobart with Mt Wellington in the background

Hobart with Mt Wellington in the background

Across the mighty Derwent River to Rosny Hill Lookout to marvel at the city from afar. The Tasman Bridge was a talking point, not least of all due to the bridge collapse in 1975 when a ship ploughed into the arch at night. The falling concrete sank the ship and killed seven crew, and cars crossing the bridge at night could not see the collapsed arch and drove into the gap with five further fatalities. Traffic is still stopped when large vessels are heading up the river with pilot boats guiding the vessels safely under the bridge.

Ferns and waterfalls at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens

Ferns and waterfalls at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens

The final stop was the beautiful Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens, set to celebrate 200 years next year. It was lovely to have a wander about and see the lovely lakes and some of the many huge trees and varieties of camellias and rhododendrons throughout the gardens.

The tour was on a repurposed 1973 Bedford bus, a fitting way to see some of the sites of a beautiful city with much heritage to enjoy.

Hartley Historic Village

One of the first things to know about the Hartley area is that there is a lot of it. From the Blue Mountains heading towards Lithgow you first pass through Little Hartley (with the old Harp of Erin on the left hand side, past the lolly shop) then the roadhouse cafe and farming produce store at Mid Hartley. A detour along Browns Gap Road will take you through Hartley Vale, providing an opportunity to enjoy a lovely drive through the valley.

The historic village of Hartley is under the care of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). The NPWS took over the upkeep of the village in 1972, and there are various tours and accommodation options available. On the day I went for a wander there was a bus load of school kids visiting from the south coast, and they were split into groups to explore the historic courthouse and the Catholic Church.

The village of Hartley began to take shape in the mid 1830s with travel along the Great Western Road passing nearby following the opening of Victoria Pass. By 1837 the Hartley Courthouse was in operation, administering local justice until 1887 when court business was transferred to Lithgow. The building became a popular backdrop for tourists taking group photos on tours to the Jenolan Caves and was set up as a museum from the period after World War II until it came under the control of NPWS.

Hartley is one of the towns that came into existence due to the needs of travellers heading to the western districts, but then declined in significance when bypassed by the railway in the 1870s. The remaining buildings include old pubs and places of worship.

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Old Post Office, Hartley

The old post office is now a family-owned and operated cafe. The pressed tin ceiling, painted white, has a lovely rose design and there is local artwork on display and for sale inside the cafe. The granite tor, which I’ve written about previously, is located behind the old post office. There is an energy about it, and it is worth the walk up the slope in order to see the vistas stretching out towards Oberon and Lithgow, with the Great Western Highway snaking its way up the incline to Lithgow, Bathurst and beyond.

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The Farmer’s Inn, which now includes the Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Gallery. St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church in the background.

The Farmers Inn, which has served various purposes including time as a pub during the gold rush, is now a tourist centre and a gallery for indigenous artists from the central west of NSW.

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St Bernard’s Presbytery (right) and St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church

Evidence of the strong Irish Catholic community is evident in St Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church and Presbytery, built in the 1830s and 1840s. The Anglican church, St John the Evangelist, is located closer to the highway and was built in the 1850s.

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The Shamrock Inn, Hartley

During my occasional visits to Hartley I’ve been drawn to the Shamrock Inn, one of the last buildings along the road. It seems to be settling down into its foundations with each passing year, the stones at the front of the building a little more uneven and the doorways slightly shorter than my height.

Pride and preservation combined with an interesting heritage make Hartley Historic Village a place well worth the trip. 

[Photo: Hartley Courthouse]

Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, Katoomba

This grand old building catches my eye whenever I glimpse it from the Great Western Highway. The sheer physicality of the building remains striking despite the air of dilapidation and dereliction that surrounds it. There are blazes of graffiti along with eyeless windows, covered with plastic following the ravages of fires. It requires quite a bit of imagination to think what it might have been like in its earlier days.

The Sisters of Charity arrived in Katoomba in 1900 seeking a place of respite for exhausted nuns “where they might find fresh vigour for God’s work”. Initially they moved into a former guesthouse, converting it into a convent and then opening a school for girls. It had a mix of day students and boarders and soon reached the capacity of the initial premises despite the purchase of a neighbouring property. A larger site was needed.

The new site, located within easy walking distance of the train station, fronted the Great Western Highway. Building commenced in 1909 and by 1910, boarding pupils were being accepted into the new college. The vision of the college included its role as a monument to higher education and its place in creating a progressive society. Students attended from interstate as well as from the Pacific Islands as the reputation of the college grew. Over the decades there were additions to the original buildings and continued development of the grounds, with land being purchased and sold as required. The college included a kindergarten, infants school, and middle school as well as university classes to prepare students for entry to Arts, Teacher Training, Medicine, Science and Law.

The impact and presence of the college on the hill was acknowledged by the local community. This was symbolised by the illumination of an eight foot cross on the roof of the tower in 1938 at the suggestion of a non-Catholic community member. The costs were covered by the local community, and it became a visible point of reference for travellers and locals alike. The site played an important role in offering refuge during World War II for Orders living close to Sydney Harbour during the Japanese submarine attacks. It also offered shelter for locals affected by the devastating bushfires in 1957.

Inevitably there were various changes to the educational offerings over time. In 1965, Mount St Mary’s became a regional school for girls, then became co-educational following the closure of St Bernard’s College at Katoomba. But by 1973, the school’s operation was regarded as non-viable and the Sisters withdrew from the education ministry. This was taken over by the Archdiocese of Sydney but with enrolments down to 180 students, the school was closed at the end of 1974.

The property was subsequently gifted to the Archdiocese of Sydney, and the premises were used for a decade for educational and religious retreats until a fire order was placed on the building and it was closed down. The costs associated with bringing the site up to standard was considered prohibitive, and the property was sold in 1985.

A new lease of life for the site commenced in 1987 when it was opened as the Renaissance Centre, a mix of speciality shops, performance and teaching areas. Ownership changed hands again in the early 1990s, but as tenants continued to leave, the site became vacant. Vandalism and fires have taken their toll in the intervening years, and it remains in its current state of disrepair.

A detailed history of the site is available here. There is a wonderful early photo of the convent along with a concise history by Blue Mountains Local Studies here.

There is a blog post here from the time the building was put up for sale in 2012.

There are some wonderful recollections of past students here including tales of tunnels and stories passed between siblings and students about a One-Eyed Nun.

Is there a place that you pass by that makes you wonder what it was like in its glory days?

St Mary's Convent and College, Katoomba

St Mary’s Convent and College, Katoomba

Sources: Mount St Mary’s College and Convent, NSW Office of Environment & Heritage; The Convent, Katoomba, Blue Mountains City Library; Mt St Mary’s: The St Bernards Katoomba Old Boys Association Website; Old Estates for Sale (WordPress).

[Photo: detail from above an entrance to the main tower]

Bowenfels Gun Emplacements, Lithgow

Over time I am learning more about Lithgow and its history, and I was vaguely aware that it played an important role in providing guns for Australian troops during both World Wars. Lithgow had been chosen as the preferred site for small arms manufacture in 1909 after much lobbying and extensive consideration of various sites in regional Australia. A combination of cheap coal and an established steel industry in the town helped with the site selection.

In June 1912 the factory was formally opened with its own powerhouse, tool room and forge shop, employing nearly 200 people. This swelled to about 1300 during World War I; following the war the numbers fell steadily during the Great Depression before picking up again during World War II. But along with increased employment demands, there was the growing threat of air attack after Japan entered the war. As the factory was making the rifles and machine guns for the Australian Army, it was considered a potential target. Lithgow was an important location due to its mining, manufacturing and transport industries.

On 10 December 1941, 20 officers and men from the 9th Heavy Anti Aircraft Battery arrived in the town to set up sites for guns in two locations. Scenic Hill, on the approach from Windsor, and South Bowenfels, were the selected locations based on the likelihood of any attack coming from either end of the valley. The gun emplacements were commenced on 22 December 1941 and were operational on Scenic Hill from 2 January 1942, and at Bowenfels shortly after. The sites were manned 24 hours a day. A Lewis Machine Gun detachment was assigned for the close defence of the Lithgow Small Arms Factory with the machine gun installed on the factory roof.

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Emplacement with replica gun

The Bowenfels site had been a farm, and the existing infrastructure was used to provide camouflage. There was a farmhouse, manse, cattle yards, outhouses and pigpens: these were put to use by the soldiers who manned the site. Further modifications included the skeleton construction of a barn and gravel roads to give the impression of a normal farm layout from above. Sections were removed from the barn roof for observation and rangefinder areas, and one gun was located within an orchard. Trees were shaped out of scrap metal and nets used to disguise the guns. Concrete slit trenches surrounded the emplacements to protect against aircraft attack and enemy troops dropped near the guns. There were also dummy emplacements set up as decoys.

As the threat to Australia moved further north, the guns were removed during December 1943 and January 1944. It is thought that the guns and the artillery crews were sent to islands off the northern coast. The ‘hoax farm’ buildings were auctioned off after 1945.

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Replica gun with Lithgow in the background

In recent years, the Bowenfels site has been restored and replica guns installed in three of the emplacements. The site is located near Tom Lesslie Place, off Kirkley Street. It is signposted with access carved out between housing and commercial developments. The emplacements, nestled into the hillside, are surrounded by scrub and a wide scattering of rabbits. It remains as a physical reminder of a time when Lithgow was identified along with Bathurst as a valuable location under threat outside of the Sydney Fortress Area. Fortification of the industrial areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla were the priority, but the threat of a land based enemy invasion was real and precautions were taken to prepare the town. There is an article on a re-enactment that was planned for the site here.

Sources: Lithgow Heavy Anti Aircraft Gun Stations and Dummy Station, Office of Environment & Heritage; Lithgow Mercury; Lithgow Tourism; Proud Valley – Lithgow by Ian Kirkwood, 2003; Lithgow Small Arms Factory Museum.