Parramatta Female Factory – The earliest convict women’s site in Australia.

Parramatta Female Factory – The earliest convict women’s site in Australia.

In December 1799 Parramatta’s log and thatch gaol burnt down and was replaced by a stone gaol under the direction of the Reverend Samuel Marsden, acting as Superintendant of Public Works. The building commenced in 1802 and sometime in 1803 it was decided to add a second storey as a linen and woollen manufactory. This was the first female factory but only Joseph Lycett’s painting of it remains.

Built less than skilfully, it was soon in very poor condition and far too small for the accommodation needs of convict women. The second Parramatta Female Factory was instigated by Governor Macquarie, designed by Francis Greenway and built by Watkins and Payten, local Parramatta builders, between 1818 and 1821.

Although it was definitely a gaol, women being sent there from the courts as a place of secondary punishment, it had multiple other purposes. It was a house of asylum as convict women too sick or infirm to work could find shelter there. The first dedicated women’s health service in the colony was erected within its walls. It was the first colonial home for newly arrived convicts, yet to be assigned. Convict women whose jobs ended, were returned to the factory to await further assignment, so it also became a labour exchange. Marriage fairs were held there making it a marriage bureau and the work performed designated it a viable manufactory, despite the women being described as having, ‘no commercial value’.

Work conditions led to the first known, female workers riots in Australia in 1827. This second Factory is the earliest convict women’s site still in existence in Australia. Besides the building phase of Lachlan Macquarie, Governor Brisbane commissioned the third class additions while Governor Gipps additions included a three storey, solitary cell block and large courtyard.

Many parts of the factory remain but need to be teased out of surrounding buildings, extensions and alterations. Enclosure walls 20 feet high, matrons residence, hospital, dead house, workrooms, a building for refractory women c1823 and the massive Gipps compound are all extant.

In a refurbished building, which recycled the original factory stone, are the bell dated 1820 and a Thwaites and Reed clock which ordered the convict women’s days.

Closed by 1849, the factory reopened as the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and is still a mental health facility to this day. Parramatta Female Factory Friends Inc has developed from community response to the tenuous future of the Factory. Their group action aims to ensure this internationally significant site firstly gains National Heritage Listing, then World Heritage Listing.

The current Factory replaced the first factory and was the model for all eleven succeeding factories. It predates all but three of the UNESCO world heritage listed items. These sites and buildings are under threat from an Urban Growth plan to erect high rise housing in the factory and surrounding hospital area. The threat is not from demolition but from entirely inappropriate development including two high rise residential buildings scheduled for inside the Governor Gipps compound.

To accommodate the easy flow of residents it is proposed to put five entries in the currently intact compound walls. After much pressure from the Female Factory Friends and 10,000 signatures delivered to Parliament, Dr Geoff Lee, Local Member of Parliament, has given a verbal account that these two buildings will be deleted from the Urban Growth design. We still await written confirmation of this so remain wary. The initial design was for 6,000 units in high rise up to 30 stories to be built in the immediate area. Continued pressure has reduced the unit numbers to approximately 4,000.

Two large community groups, Female Factory Friends and North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) have recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to protect and enhance the historic buildings and sites of the Parramatta Local Government area with a particular focus on North Parramatta’s heritage and its natural and built environment. They seek to achieve the creation of a master plan that is informed by the site, its current buildings and narrative as an alternative to the urban densification proposal by Urban Growth NSW that is driven by a policy mandate of fulfilling housing targets.

The MoU has increased the strength of their advocacy. NAPRAG is consistent in keeping the issue before local residents, Government, newspapers and radio stations. The Parramatta Female Factory friends continue with site monitoring, research, tours, talks, education activities and events. It is hoped the combined strength of the two groups will encourage Governments, Local State and National to protect, preserve and conserve the site for future generations.

Judith Dunn, Councillor, RAHS

(Federation of Australian Historical Societies Newsletter;   May 2016  No.41   Royal Australian Historical Society)

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