Roman Catholic Orphan School (RCOS)

First known as the Institute for Destitute Roman Catholic Children, this government owned orphanage was renamed the Roman Catholic Orphan School in 1859 when the Sisters of the Good Samaritan (Good Shepherd) were given day to day management. 

Orphaned Children in colonial NSW.

Colonial authorities were concerned about the care of 'orphaned' or abandoned children as early 1796 and in 1801 established the Female Orphan School in a house earlier owned by Captain Kent, brother in law to Governor King. This was a temporary arrangement with plans to build a new orphanage some distance from the corrupting influences of Sydney Town at a later date. Eventually a new Female Orphan School was built a short distance from Parramatta on a portion of land once known as Arthur's Hill (present day Rydalmere UWS campus). Occupied in 1818 this Orphan School was Protestant in administration and operations and with increased arrivals of Irish Catholic convicts from the late 1820s to the mid 1830s, calls were made on the Government to establish an Orphanage for Catholic children.

Australia's first orphanage for Catholic children

Demands by the Catholic community for an orphanage were realised in 1836 when provision was made to fund such an establishment. Its location was largely determined by its proximity to the Female Factory and the availability of government owned land when in 1838 a two and half acre site adjoining the Female Factory site was chosen. Building work commenced in 1840 and proceeded over two years with a report in November 1841 stating that roofing would be underway by February 1842.

‘The new orphan school adjoining the factory is rapidly progressing, and will be ready for the roof in about six or eight weeks. It consists of four storeys, the lowest being intended as a storeroom of fifty feet, and the horizontal dimensions are about 56x 22 ft. At the rear of the building, fronting the domain, an abutting addition of three storeys is carried up, which is intended as a residence for the Superintendent, Matron and Teachers. The School is to be walled in, the outhouses being ranged around the limits of the enclosure.’ Sydney Herald, 30 Nov, 1841.

Though building work was completed by 1843, occupation of the site was delayed by concerns raised by the Catholic community that it would remain in government ownership and be managed by a Board appointed by the government. Subsequent attempts by the Catholic Church to acquire the property failed.

First admissions 

On the 8 March 1844, 113 children were transferred from temporary accommodation at Waverley to the New Orphan School at Parramatta, under the supervision of Matron Burke.

Waverley House orphanage

Physical Description

Designed by colonial engineer Henry Ginn with later additions attributed to William Munro and Thomas Henry Harvey, the main building is a plain rather austere colonial Georgian ‘Palladian’ style barrack design of 3 storeys and basement with an abutting rear annex and separate kitchen/servants room and lavatories set about 100ft from the main structure. The 1843 floor plans indicate the basement contained a dining room, masters kitchen, cellar and staircase with a schoolroom, masters parlour and storeroom on the ground floor and dormitories with servant rooms on upper floors. 

RCOS floor plans 1843

Additions & Alterations

Soon overcrowded, alterations and additions to the site saw the demolition of the kitchen range and the construction of a West Range - firstly a 2 storey brick/slate roof barrack with a dining room on the ground floor and dormitory above in 1850, then a Chapel abutting the north end of this building in 1856, and a kitchen range with staff quarters and a dormitory above abutting the south end in 1858, thus forming a 'U' shaped footprint for the west range complex. These later additions have been attributed to William Munro.

A laundry was built between the West Range and the riverside western perimeter in 1861 and a two storey brick/slate roof building was constructed in the southern grounds in 1862. Today known as 'Bethel' this building is Australia's first purpose built hospital for children. A lavatory/ablution block was built between the West Range and the Orphanage Hospital building at this time, together with  isolation cells.

Roman Catholic Orphan School, c 1864 photo courtesy SAG
Roman Catholic Orphan School with North Wing C 1868 photo courtesy SAG

By 1867 the Orphan School land holdings extended to 69 acres across both sides of the Parramatta River including the present day Parramatta Leagues Club site and Northcott.  Final additions came in 1866-67 with a new north wing added to the main barrack building followed by a new south wing  in 1876-77, thus forming the present day 'H' shaped footprint of this building.

RCOS Hospital photo courtesy of SAG
West Range Roman Catholic Orphan School photo courtesy of SAG

Following the construction of the West Range Dining Room and dormitory and Chapel in the 1850s the orphanage became known as the Roman Catholic Orphan School and the Female Orphan School at Rydalmere became known as the Protestant Orphan School.


The Roman Catholic Orphan School was a government owned institution, managed by a Board and staffed by employees paid from the public purse. Initially 2 or 3 Sisters of Charity from the neighbouring Female Factory assisted in the day to day operations under the supervision of a Matron. This arrangement continued until 1859 when the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (later known as the Good Samaritans) were employed to manage the institution.

The Children

Photo of child found among others of the Roman Catholic Orphan School photo courtesy of SAG

Initially children 3 to 12 years of age were accepted for admission, but with the closure of the Female Factory and the diminishing number of convict women available as wet nurses, the lower age limit was dispensed with by 1847.  Children could remain at the institutions for weeks or years and were admitted on the basis that they were:

  • Orphans of one or both parents; or
  • living with vicious or immoral parents or guardians; or
  • as might relieve the distress of a large family.

How Many?

The Orphan School was originally designed to accommodate up to 150 children but with additions this was extended to 250. Demand for places was always high, particularly during the Gold Rush period in the late 1850s and again in the 1870 following a dramatic increase in birth rates. In its 42 years of operations an estimated 9,000 children were admitted.

Today the Roman Catholic Orphan School remains a foundational site in the evolution of the Australian welfare system and is particularly significant in the history of Forgotten Australians. 


The Roman Catholic Orphan School was the subject of many inquiries and reports, the first occurring in 1855 then 1866 and again in 1874.

‘The Roman Catholic Orphan School consists of two distinct parts – a stone building, erected for the purpose, but ill-adapted, a brick building, recently added, which is still less suitable. The kitchen is a dark and dirty apartment, and is situated midway between the old and new buildings. The children have no means of access to the dining room but by passing through the kitchen. The dining room is too small, un-ventilated, and ill supplied with furniture, owing to the want of seats children are obliged to stand at their meals. Food is taken with their fingers, no implements being given the children but spoons. Very few wear shoes and stockings, and none have clothes which are distinctly their own….the children sleep in their undergarments worn by day, which are changed once a week…..The whole of the arrangements for ensuring cleanliness are extremely defective. Both girls and boys wash in tubs – the former in the cellar, and the latter under a shed in the playground. The water closets are close to the kitchen, where the effluvium can be distinctly perceived, even in cold weather. They are too small, too much exposed, and in a filthy condition. From our experience we are able to state that this is one of the greatest wants in the schools in the colony, and, in our opinion, it is the cause of much indecency, if not immorality. The dormitories are very badly ventilated, and the old buildings, in particular, infested with bugs. The accommodation is so inefficient, that in many instances, two children are obliged to sleep together. The mattresses are made of straw, which is changed as occasion requires. The children are locked in their dormitories, a very undesirable procedure, as there is no possible means of escape in case of fire – should the keys be mislaid, or the teachers in their alarm neglect to open the door. Parents or friends, who visit the children, are permitted to see them in a part of the building separate from the rest. The children, unless sent specifically on a message, are, very properly, prevented from leaving the establishment, because the class of people with whom they will in all probability mix – outside the walls – would be rather calculated to injure than improve their morals. Schooling is undertaken by three teachers one each for Boys, Girls and Infants, older children were employed in the laundry or farm. Instead of the exuberant vivacity usually displayed by children just escaped from the confinement of a school, we saw in general, sluggishness.’ Report on the orphan schools at Parramatta, 15th October 1855.

Roman Catholic Orphan School c1886
1843 elevation plans Roman Catholic Orphan School

Daily Routine

Life for children in the orphan schools was dull, tedious and unforgiving. During the summer months children would rise at 6am with prayers said, would begin their days work until breakfast at 8am. More prayers then school and work duties till lunch time, more prayers, school and work until early evening, dinner and then to bed. Emphasis was placed on religious instruction, basic education and training with the children required to carry out domestic duties including kitchen work, cleaning, laundry, wood cutting and farming.  

In allaying operational costs, children were required to labour unpaid six days a week cleaning, washing, cooking, sewing, dairywork, gardening, woodchopping and carting water. By 1860 an industrial laundry  -modelled on the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland – had been established on site and from this time onwards laundry work would feature prominently as a source of income in orphanages and children’s homes in Australia. At 12 years of age children were apprenticed out as domestic servants or labourers

Children were permitted to see family or friends once a month in a part of the building separate from the rest however they were not permitted to leave the establishment and had little means of becoming familiar with the outside world.

Visitors Comment 1866

‘The boys have a very good room to bathe and wash in; the girls have no place of this kind, but a wretched little cellar…The dining room, if it can be termed, is a large verandah, which has been closed in by jealousies. There is a broad covered way, leading from the main building to the schoolrooms, etc, in the rear, and this covered way affords one of the refuge for the children in wet weather. ….The hospital arrangements are as good as the place will allow….A sum of £1,000 [pounds] has been voted this year for the erection of an additional wing…..The new wing will contain a bath room for the girls, as well as additional dormitories etc. Another wing is to be added hereafter, and when the whole shall have been completed, the main building will be in the form of a letter H. of which what is at present the principal building will form the central bar. The chapel is a large and handsome one with the cost of its erection and fittings and those of a small sacristy adjacent, chiefly defrayed by private contributions.’ SMH 19 Dec 1866

RCOS West Range Dining room with boys photo courtesy of SAG
Covered Way Roman Catholic Orphan School c 1886

Last Days

In 1874 the Public Charities Commission found it to be overcrowded, with 267 children crowded into buildings designed to accommodate 250. The Commission also reported that there were no proper bathing arrangements and that drainage was bad with no basins provided in the girls lavatory. The Commission was a precursor to reforms which eventually saw the introduction of the State Children Relief Act (1881) and the implementation of the Boarding out system. 

The orphanage was vacated on 12 August 1886 with staff and children transferred to the Roman Catholic Industrial School at Manly. This came about as a result of a change in policy by the government over the control of education, where non government ‘schools’ were no longer funded by the State. In the following months the perimeter walls were extended in height and extent enclosing about seven and a half acres around the main site and in April 1887 the former orphanage was proclaimed as an Industrial School for Females to replace the Biloela Girls Industrial School on Cockatoo Island.

Other Names

St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Orphanage, Institution for Destitute Roman Catholic Children at Parramatta and the New Orphan School.

On the 9 March 2014, a garden planted around the former hospital building 'Bethel' was dedicated by the Honourable Professor Marie Bashir Governor of NSW in memory of the children who died here.  This is the first memorial garden in Australia created by the Forgotten Australians of the Parramatta Girls Home through the PFFP Memory Project. 

Remembering the children  of the Roman Catholic Orphan School

Childrens Day RCOS Gov Marie Bashir with Geoff Lee MP
Connecting Community

In 2013 and 2014 young people from the Fairfield Stake Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints pitched in to help clean up, paint and prepare the former institutional site for PFFP Memory Projects' Children's Day.

RCOS Memory Quilt recording names of 114 children who died in the orphanage
Connecting past to Present

Roman Catholic Orphan School Memory Quilt commemorates 129 children buried in unmarked graves at St Patricks cemetery North Parramatta who died while in the orphanage. This quilt now hangs in Bethel, the former RCOS hospital building.