Parramatta Female Factory

Australia's first purpose built establishment for convict women sent to the colony of New South Wales was built on a 4 acre portion of land previously owned by Governor William Bligh on the upper reaches of the Parramatta River next to Reverend Samuel Marsden's property. By 1840 the Female Factory would share a common boundary wall with Australia's first government owned orphanage for Catholic children - the Roman Catholic Orphan School. 

First occupied on 31 January 1821 with the transfer of convict women from the nearby Factory above the Town Gaol, the Female Factory operated as an assignment depot, prison, place of industry and medical facility until 1847 when it was re-purposed as a convictInvalid and Lunatic Asylum.  

Female penitentiary, Parramatta Augustus Earle 1826? NLA PIC T85 NK12/47

Commissioned by Governor Macquarie in 1816 and designed by emancipated convict Francis Greenway on a plan similar to the Hyde Park convict barracks, the Female Factory was a large institutional complex modelled on the Workhouses of England, with its buildings and structures eventually extending over an area of approximately 8 acres. The decision to build a Barracks and Factory was driven by pressing concerns about the inadequacy of the towns' gaol where convict women were confined. 

The contract was signed  on 4 May 1818 and the foundation stone laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Macquarie in the presence of builders, Mssrs. Watkins and Payten, Chief Engineer Major George Druitt and convict work gangs.

Physical Description

Built using convict labour from locally quarried sandstone, the walls of this 3 storey barrack building ranged from 2’6” at the foundations to 20” at its apex and it was roofed with oak shingles and paved with 6” stringy-bark floors, barred leadlight basement windows and lead glazed windows on the upper floors. Unlike the Hyde Park Barracks, the Female Factory had a unique architectural feature with a cupola over the central axis and a large clock in the pediment above the main entrance which had been gifted to the colony by King George IV in 1822

Parramatta Female Factory

‘A Large Commodious handsome stone built Barrack and Factory, three storeys high, with wings of one storey each for the accommodation and residence of 300 Female Convicts, with all the requisite Out-offices including Carding, Weaving and Loom Rooms, Work-shops, Stores for Wool, Flax, etc,etc..for the Superintendent, and also a large kitchen garden for the use of the Female Convicts, and Bleaching Ground for Bleaching the Cloth and Linen Manufactured; the whole of the Building and said Grounds, consisting of about four acres, being enclosed with a high Stone Wall and Moat or Wet Ditch.’ Macquarie Letters 1822.

Alterations & Additions

1833 Parramatta Female Factory plan

The division of the Establishment into Classes was considered essential, and, to enable each to have their separate Kitchen, Workshops and other accommodations, several alterations became necessary; Store-keeper's Rooms and Offices, a Porter's Room, etc. were constructed at the Outer Gate, preventing the necessity of these people going inside the Building at all, the inner Gate being kept by a Portress.  The accompanying Plan of the Building will show alterations which have been made to the penitentiary section. To prevent the necessity of sending the women outside the building to obtain the supply of water required, a force pump has been erected, and arrangements made for conducting water to all parts of the establishment, thereby obviating the necessity of there being any intercourse between the different classes. The surrounding wall having been considered much too low, not being more than 11 feet, it has been heightened to about 16 feet.

Penitentiary buildings

In 1826 a penitentiary range was built to accommodate the Crime Class. Sometimes referred to as the 'Brisbane' penitentiary (after Governor Brisbane) or 3rd class sleeping quarters, this building was soon overcrowded and alterations and additions were made to include Workshops along perimeter walls and a separate Dining Hall.

With the completion of a new 3 storey 72 cell Third class penitentiary range in 1839, the earlier penitentiary was converted for use as an itch ward. This later penitentiary range was demolished in 1883-5 and the area where it was once located is sometimes referred to as the Gipps Yard after Governor George Gipps.

Convict Women

The Female Factory housed convict women waiting for assignment, their children, re-offenders, emancipated women, or others requiring maternity, medical care, destitute invalid emigrant women, staff and administrators. Today, an estimated 1 in 10 Australians are descended from these convict women.

Their Crimes

These outcast women were viewed as ‘beyond redemption’ yet this is not reflected in the crimes for which they were transported with 65.3% having no prior convictions. The types of crimes punishable by transportation varied between England, Scotland and Ireland. Theft predominated among the English and Scottish convicts, whereas riot and sedition predominated among the Irish. While the English were more concerned with crimes protecting property and existing social order, the Calvinistic Scots had severer sanctions for religious violations such as adultery, immorality, breaking the Sabbath and denial of the existence of God. Most were transported for 7 years, lesser numbers for 14 years or life and usually after 2 or 3 years good behaviour were given a Ticket of Leave.

Where did they come from?

The greater number of women came from Ireland (56%) then England (34%), Scotland (1.5%), Wales (1.4%), outside England (1.4%) and (1.9%) unknown. They differed in religion and ethnicity and included Jews, Moslems, Hindu’s, Romany’s, Africans, French, Indian and Chinese. 

Their Children

Children were allowed to remain with their mothers at the Factory until they reached the age of four years at which time they were sent to Orphan Schools thereafter all contact with their children was lost until their release and often times longer depending on their circumstances. With the influx of female immigrants from the 1830s onwards, Orphan Schools became too crowded to accept ‘Factory’ children and an Infant school was established. In 1834 the Board of Management recommended that a certain sum be offered to small settlers and others to take children out to nurse in an effort to reduce numbers. This was the first attempt at a ‘boarding out’ (foster care) system in New South Wales.

Management & Staff

The Female Factory was administered by a Board of Management made up of 'respectable men' who met every three months, with a Matron and Superintendent in charge of daily operations. First appointed as superintendent was Francis Oakes who had previously been in charge of the Factory above the Gaol followed by William Tuckwell in July 1822.   The first Matron was Elizabeth Fulloon (nee Raine) who served from April 1824 to October 1827 and her son John, as administrator until 1825. Next was Ann Gordon then Sarah Bell with husband Thomas as 'keeper' until 1838 followed by Mrs. Leach and Mr Clapham as Superintendent. Leach and Clapham were dismissed in late 1838 and the Bell's re-appointed until 1843 when they and assistant matron Mrs Corcoran were suspended. For the next 5 months Mr and Mrs William Rogers were in charge followed by George and Lucy Smyth until early 1847. Last to hold the positions of Matron and Superintendent were Elizabeth and Edwyn Statham who both remained on when the Factory was proclaimed a Public Lunatic Asylum.  Other staff included assistant matrons  and monitoresses. 

Classification System

Managing inmates with different needs, ages and lengths of stay proved difficult. To remedy this a Two Class system was introduced with women identified as either the Merit Class or Crime Class. This was further refined to a Three Class System after 1826 according to women’s availability for assignment. Women in the First Class were eligible for assignment, while those in the Second Class were on probation, or otherwise not available for assignment because of medical or maternity needs, and Third Class women were serving time in the penitentiary section as a disciplinary measure or for offences committed while on assignment.

Classification also determined the type of work women could do while in the Factory their clothing and their diet. Women in the First and Second Classes could work as hat makers, wool pickers, cloth scouring, carding, weaving, laundry, needlework, cleaning and straw plaiting for which they received a small payment after completing their daily quota. Third class women were restricted to unpaid menial tasks and hard labour such as stone breaking and oakum picking.

A Place of Industry

‘The factory will have then within its Walls the means of Spinning, Weaving, and making up the whole of the clothing required by Government for the Convicts in their employ. As the first Class of this Establishment is considered as an Asylum and not a place of Punishment for the un appropriated Female Prisoners, Women returned to the first Class will not be considered as having forfeited their Claim to a Ticket of Leave, as it must be inferred that they have committed no offence in their Service, or they would have been punished by being sent to the third Class.’ Governor Darling to Hon W Huskinsson 1 May 1828.

‘Labor from the most criminal and refractory class is to be obtained to a greater extent than heretofore by breaking stones for the Roads and Streets of Parramatta, and suitable occupation for the better conducted women will be obtained as far as circumstances permit.’ Sir Richard Bourke, 10 September 1836.

My Lord, As does not now appear to be the intention of His Majesty's Government to discontinue the transportation of Female Convicts to this Colony, and as, by the frequent arrivals of Female Emigrants, the demand for Convicts for private service become much less, I have thought it necessary to place upon an Establishment more suited to its present numbers the Prison, or Factory as it is here called, in which all Female Convicts are detained when not in assigned service, or married to Residents in the Colony, or possessing the indulgence of a Ticket of Leave. A School will be opened in the Prison, and the instruction and employment of these outcast women will, I hope, be occasionally superintended by the Committee of Ladies, which I hope to recognise under the influence of a circular from Mrs. Fry, which I have caused to be distributed wherever I thought it would be well received….I perceive that, on the 31st of December, 1835, the number of Female Convicts in the Factory amounted to no less than 646, a number considerably exceeding that which was found to be inconveniently large in 1828.’ Sir Richard Bourke, 10 September 1836.

READ MORE: Sessional papers...1845 - The cloth called Parramatta cloth, which was found most suitable for convicts, is made for 1*. ... regulations introduced into the female factory here, by Sir George Gipps, allowing the women a portion of their earnings in tea, sugar,.

Admission & Clothing

After 1826 all women were required to bathe upon admission, were inspected by the matron, searched and any money was confiscated and then issued with clothing or ‘slops’ in blue or brown serge, or Stuff-Gown, white apron and straw bonnet for Sunday with a jacket and coarse apron for week days. After 1824 first class women were issued special Sunday clothes being; one white cap, a long dress with muslin frill, one red calico jacket, two cotton check handkerchiefs, one blue gurrah petticoat, one under petticoat or factory flannel, one white calico apron, two shifts, one pair of grey stockings, one pair of shoes, one straw bonnet, and a clothes bag to hold all. Weekdays; two calico caps, drab serge petticoat, drab serge jacket one apron.

Hospital & Medical 

The Factory provided medical services for aged and invalid women together with a lying in hospital for nursing mothers and for many years was the only institution wherein a deserted infant could be placed with a wet nurse.

‘It will perhaps be necessary to observe that this Establishment the receptacle (with the exception of a single Ward, appropriated to Females in Sydney) for all the Females in the Colony who require medical aid.’ Governor Darling to Hon W Huskinsson 1 May 1828.

Riots & Punishment

The first recorded riot occurred in 1827 followed by others in 1831, 1833, 1836 and 1843. Most riots occurred as a result of overcrowding and inequitable arrangements. Secondary punishments applied to women who rioted, absconded, were absent, insolent, disorderly in their conduct and for women on release for theft, stabbing, forgery, found in ‘carnal connection,’ drunk, vagrant, pregnant or of ‘bad character.’ Punishment included demotion to the Third class, head shaving, hard labour and solitary confinement fed on bread and water for up to 21 days or exile to Moreton Bay.

See: Reminiscences of Thirty Years' Residence in NSW and Victoria: Therry, R. Outbreak at the Parramatta Factory 

Marriage Factory Style

"AT ALL PERIODS during the progress of the colony, and up to the present time, (1835) single men could obtain wives, on application, from amongst the female convicts, at the chief depot in Parramatta. The form is a strange one, and well worth relating. A man desiring a wife, and being unable to suit himself elsewhere, proceeds to the female factory at Parramatta, and presents himself to the matron and master of that institution. The certificate of a clergyman or magistrate is produced; setting forth that the applicant is a proper person to have a wife given to him, from the many under charge of the matron. The applicant in then introduced into a room of the building, whilst the matron proceeds to the class department, that contains the best behaved of the female convicts. Notice is here given that a wife is required, and such as are willing to be married step forward, and are marshaled in batches into the presence of the would-be Benedict. On they pass, the man speaking to individuals as they attract his attention, inquiring their age, etc. till some one is met with who pleases his taste, and possesses the required perfection's. The inquiries then become mutual; the lover wishes to know if the fair one has ever been married; the question is reiterated by the female, who also desires to learn how many head of cattle or sheep, or what land or houses, her lover is possessed of. Mutual explanations take place, and if satisfactory on both sides, the matron is acquainted with the fact, and a day named for the marriage. All the time, this lady is present, and has frequently to witness strange and ludicrous scenes; scores of females passing for review, between whose personal and other claims, the applicant balances his mind, sometimes leaving it to the matron to decide whom he shall take. When this knotty point is settles, the authorities are informed of the fact; the clergy of the place publishes the banns, and if no impediment intervenes, on the appointed day, the parties are married; the woman leaving the factory, and returning to a state of freedom in the colony, during good conduct. These marriages are of frequent occurrence, thousands having thus obtained wives.” Extract from Twelve Years' Wanderings in the British Colonies, from 1835 to 1847, J.C. Byrne.

Religious Divide

Attendance at morning and evening prayers and Sunday services was obligatory with women attending prayers in the mess rooms - Roman Catholics in one and Protestants in the other, further divided by class with the first class stood along one wall and the second on the opposite. In 1838 Matron Leach declared that of the 600 inmates, 500 were Roman Catholics and in December of that year five Irish Sisters of Charity arrived in the colony to begin their missionary work starting at the Female Factory in early 1839.

How Many?

An estimated two thirds of the 12,600 or so convict women sent to the colony spent time in the Factory. The institution was frequently overcrowded with numbers peaking in 1842 with 1203 women and 263 children in residence. Records for 1827 show 322 inmates, 1828: 405 women, 1829: 537 women and 61 children, with an average turnover during the first decade of around 1,200 per year. In the 1830s the monthly average remained around 500 for women and 130 children, with the annual turnover around 6000 women and 1600 children; in 1840: 887 women 405 children and 1845: 370 women and 123 children.

Last Days

Transportation to the colony of NSW came to an end in 1840 and efforts to empty out the Female Factory began. Women were encouraged to make their own way in being given a Ticket of Leave, or Pardoned. Faced with a new wave of migration suggestions were made that the Factory be used to accommodate Female Emigrants however this was dismissed and an alternative proposal for its use as a Benevolent Asylum for sick and destitute convict women was taken up with the transfer of 21 women from the Tarban Creek Asylum (Gladesville) in 1846 and in 1847 the Female Factory was re-purposed as a convict Invalid and Lunatic Asylum. 

What Remains?

Remaining buildings and structures of the Female Factory complex include sections of boundary walls, the Matron’s Residence, Dispensary and Hospital Lying in (Maternity) Ward, the Superintendent Storekeepers quarters, the 1826 Crime Class penitentiary and the Factory Clock and Bell.

Crime Class Penitentiary Female Factory photo courtesy B Djuric
Entrance to 3rd Class Penitentiary Yard Female Factory photo courtesy of B Djuric
Matrons Residence Female Factory photo courtesy of B Djuric
Storekeeper/Superintendents Residence Female Factory photo courtesy B Djuric

Other Female Factories

Newcastle Female Factory c1818-48 (Also known as Coal River establishment): Moreton Bay (Brisbane) Female Factory 1829-39: Port Macquarie Female Factory c1831-42: Bathurst Female Factory 1833-46: George Town Female Factory c1824-35: Launceston Female Factory 1834-46: Old Hobart Female Factory 1822-28: Cascades Female Factory 1828-51: Anson Hulk 1843 -49: (associated with Cascades): Brickfields, Argyle St, Hobart c1842, Ross Female Factory 1848-54