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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Along the Parramatta River

These days it is relatively easy to catch a ferry from Circular Quay to Parramatta, west of Sydney. The Parramatta River is a significant waterway and acted as a highway between settlements in the early years of European colonisation. The length of time it took to travel in the early years of the colony is estimated at 12 hours; this has now been whittled down to just under an hour.

The first river ferry was the Rose Hill Packet, launched in 1789. Ferry services continued in one form or another through to 1928 when they were discontinued due to silt and shallowing of the river. In 1993 purpose-built catamaran ferries, called RiverCats, reinstated the service which remains popular although the trips are subject to tidal movements.

Recently I took a RiverCat for part of the journey, travelling from Meadowbank to Parramatta. The trip down the river was a revelation. Along the riverbank there were mangroves most of the way as well as sprouting out of an island in the middle of the river. The width of the river narrows quite significantly from Homebush to Rydalmere, then again on the approach to Parramatta. There is still quite a bit of industrial activity along the riverside, and more residential developments are clustering along the foreshore despite the pungent tang of mangroves at low tide.

Historical drawings confirm that the mangroves have expanded since colonisation, filling in areas of open water, rock outcrops and sandy beaches. This is due in part to soil displacement from land clearing and development, which continues to contribute to silt in the river. Industrial pollution over the decades has contributed to contaminated sediments: there is a short documentary on the continuing impact here.

There were flashes of bird life along the way, and as we came closer to Parramatta there were jacaranda trees dotted along the riverbank. In bloom they are one of my favourite trees. There is a video of the entire trip – speeded up with a musical back beat – here.

One of my favourite stories of life in the early colony relates to the river, and the marvellous Flying Pieman. William Francis King carried out many walking-related challenges, including walking from Sydney to Parramatta twice a day for six consecutive days. This remarkable man was able to reach destinations ahead of boats and mail coaches, even when loaded with additional weight as a handicap. There is even a musical medley named for him as well as a bush dance.

Have you taken any trips, real or historical, along a river lately?

[Photo: RiverCat departing Meadowbank Wharf, heading towards Parramatta and passing under the Meadowbank Railway Bridge]

My I Spy: Something beginning with ‘G’

Good grief! It feels like I’m powering through the alphabet. When I started out, knowing that it would take six months to wind my way through the alphabet, it seemed that it would take an age to make any headway. But here I am, galloping after things that begin with G. This is what I’ve spied lately.

Galah cushion

Galah cushion

Galahs

I love galahs. I love their flash of colours, the way they tend to hang around in flocks, or in pairs as a minimum. They can be spotted in most areas of Australia but for me they evoke wide open spaces where you can see them en masse. There was a lovely photo of a galah recently on Offerings from the Wellspring and you can see it here. The above photo is of a beautiful cushion which was a birthday gift from my sister.

Old Government House, Parramatta

Old Government House, Parramatta

Government House, Parramatta

Originally built in 1799 for Government Hunter as a two-storey house, the building was expanded over the following decades and remained as the official residence until Government House was built in Sydney in 1845. Its location as the country residence for the first 10 governors of New South Wales provided a welcome retreat from life in Sydney Town in the early decades of the colony. It also reinforced the importance of Parramatta’s location from an agricultural perspective. The property remains surrounded by extensive parklands and is a popular destination for locals and those from further afield.

Gymea Lily (Doryanthes excelsa)

These plants have become increasingly popular, particularly in public plantings. I first became aware of them at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo, where they were planted in a magnificent procession along the entrance walkway. Prior to blooming, they look rather awkward but when in flower they are magnificent. You can see some brighter images here. I spotted these along the foreshore at Meadowbank wharf, where they stood out even on a dull day.

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Green moss on rocks, Meadowbank

Green rocks

Okay, so perhaps this is being a bit creative with G, but green is my favourite colour and I couldn’t help but take a photo of these green, moss-covered rocks along the Parramatta River at Meadowbank. There were oodles of them as the tide was low, and I found it calming just to look at them. If I’m agitated, I can find peace in looking out at green leaves on trees. I know, small things.

Have you seen anything great starting with G this week?

With thanks to Pip Lincolne for the initial prompt, and Autumn for spying in another hemisphere. You can see early spies here: A, B, C, D, E and F and follow other alphabet spies on Instagram at #MyISpy.

Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta

Located on a rise that would have once commanded a view of the growing settlement of Parramatta, Elizabeth Farm remains a treasured property with its status of oldest European homestead in Australia. It is located near the Parramatta River, and construction commenced in 1793. The house had various additions over time and grew from a simple bungalow to a substantial homestead with servants quarters. It was the home for John and Elizabeth Macarthur and their family, before changing hands over the decades until it was purchased by the Swann family in 1904. It stayed in the Swann family until it was transferred to the Elizabeth Farm Museum Trust in 1968.

The property is now managed by Sydney Living Museums, and it feels much more like a living space than a typical house museum where there is much to see but access is firmly limited by thick red ropes. The property has been filled with replicas of period furniture, and you are invited to touch, sit, be at home and to have a unique experience in the house. Guided tours are available as well as iPads with additional content about the Farm for self-guided visitors. The content includes photos, newspaper reports and recollections from the time of the Macarthurs, and also from the Swann family whose occupancy played a significant part in the preservation of the property. They were a large family with nine daughters, only one of them married, and they used all of the extensive property between them.

But it is the property’s association with the Macarthur family that is primarily on display. From the the hall entrance off the wide verandah with the dining room on one side and the drawing room on the other, there are many references to the Macarthur family throughout the house. I was particularly taken by the smaller rooms at the end of each side of the front of the house with their windowed alcoves looking out into the garden. These sunlit rooms were a contrast to the bedrooms at the rear of the house, especially the blue room which is kept in shadow in reference to the difficult times that John Macarthur spent here when his mental health declined before his death in 1834.

There is much to enjoy in the shape of the house and the servants quarters, the courtyard and the gardens, along with the kitchen with its big old range and copper saucepans lined up along the mantle. The kitchen garden was inviting with hearty silver beet, including heritage varieties, their yellow and scarlet stalks translucent in the afternoon light. The garden is a joy, modelled on letters and diaries outlining the botanical delights of the garden in the 1830s. Spending time in this historic house is like heading back to an earlier era, and you can nearly forget that you are within an extensive business and residential area, just 23 kilometres from Sydney.

Have you been somewhere that made you feel as though you have stepped back in time recently?

[Photo: view of the front of Elizabeth Farm from the carriage loop]