RCOS parramatta
RCOS dining room with boys

Roman Catholic Orphan School West wing dining room. Image courtesy of SAG

RCOS north wing

 Roman Catholic Orphan School north wing addition to main building. Image courtesy of SAG

RCOS elevation plan

Roman Catholic Orphan School elevation plan 1843

Roman Catholic Orphan School 

The Roman Catholic Orphan School was the first purpose built orphanage for Catholic children in Australia. 

As early as 1796 the colonial authorities were concerned about the care of children and in 1801 an orphanage was established in Sydney Town in a house formerly owned by Captain Kent. This was a temporary arrangement with plans to build a new orphan school at Rydalmere. Work on this site was completed in 1818 at which time girls were transferred from the Sydney premises. This site was first known as the Female Orphan School and later as the Protestant Orphan School and today is situated within the UWS Rydalmere campus.

Catholic Orphans

Demands by the Catholic community for the establishment of a government orphanage specifically for catholic children was realised in 1836 when provision was made for the funding of a Roman Catholic Orphanage. A two and half acre site next to the Parramatta Female Factory was selected with building work commencing in late 1840.

Orphanage buildings

Designed by colonial engineer Henry Ginn the Orphan School was built around the same time as the new Parramatta Gaol. The main building was a 3 storey Georgian ‘Palladian’ style design with an abutting rear annex, basement and separate kitchen/servants room and lavatories along the riverside boundary enclosed on three sides with high sandstone walls. Original floor plans indicate the basement contained a dining room, masters kitchen, cellar and staircase. The ground floor featured a schoolroom, masters parlour and storeroom and both upper floors were fitted out with dormitories, staff and servants quarters.
RCOS floor plans 1843


Later additions, attributed to William Munro, include a 2 storey ‘west range’ (dining room with dormitory above) built in 1850 and extended to include a kitchen, utilities with staff quarters above in 1858. In 1856 a Chapel was built alongside the west range and around 1861 a laundry/washroom measuring  82 ft x 18ft was built between the west range and the river. In 1862 a 2 storey hospital was built south of the kitchen range and by 1870 wings were added to the main building. By 1867 the Orphan School owned 69 acres across both sides of the river.

Sisters of the Good Shepherd

The Roman Catholic Orphan School at Parramatta was officially opened on the 8 March 1844 with the transfer of 113 children from temporary premises at Waverley.

A matron was responsible for day to day operations with staff including two Sisters of Charity employed by the government. In 1859 the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (later known as the Good Samaritans) took over management of the institution.


Children 12 years and younger were eligible for admission 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. 


Originally the orphan school could accommodate up to 150 children however with additions this was extended to 250 children. Demand for places was always high particularly during the gold rush era in the 1850's and in the 1870's following a dramatic rise in birthrates. 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. 

Last Days

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 in an attempt to empty out the barrack style institutions. The Roman Catholic Orphan School was vacated in August 1886 and in April 1887 the premises were proclaimed as an Industrial School for Girls.


For information on records Roman Catholic Orphan School here

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

Reference Sources 

Abandon all Hope - a history of Parramatta Girls Industrial School. Djuric B.2011

Children of the Back Lanes: Destitute and Neglected Children in Colonial N S W Ramsland J. NSW University Press Sydney, 1986

Children and the State: Social Control and the Formation of Australian Child Welfare. van Kreiken, R. Allen & Unwin: Australia 1992.