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Parramatta Female Factory Institutions Precinct

Parramatta Female Factory Institutions Precinct offers a unique insight into Australia's colonial past and the era of institutions.

Situated on the river lands of the Traditional Custodians, the Burramatta clan of the Darug nation, this institutional precinct was a place where ideas of female immorality, criminality and insanity melded; realised in the hybrid institutional architecture of the refuge, workhouse, asylum, penitentiary, orphanage, girls industrial school, girls training home, children's shelter and women's detention centre.​


National Heritage Site


Proclaimed a National Heritage site in November 2017, Parramatta Female Factory Institutions Precinct covers an area of 7.3 hectares, within which are located the adjacent historic sites of the Female Factory and the Roman Catholic Orphan School.  Both institutions have been repurposed over time with the Female Factory converted to a Lunatic Asylum in 1848 and the Orphanage repurposed as the Girls Industrial School (Parramatta Girls Home), and lastly as the Norma Parker Detention Centre for Women.

Now recognised as foundational in the evolution of Australia's welfare and education systems, this precinct holds particularly significance for the Forgotten Australians, Stolen Generations, women and convict descendants. Today millions of Australians are descended from those once confined to the Precinct's institutions.​​

Background - Institutions


The Precinct's first institution, the Female Factory was modelled on the 18th century Workhouses and Bridewells of England. The Workhouse was considered the most economic and efficient way of managing poor relief with the Bridewell or House of Correction as a place of punishment and reform for vagrant (homeless) people. Poverty was seen as a moral failing which could only be reformed through pious conduct, hard and often menial work.

These institutions were usually large establishments that provided almost everything that was needed onsite including sleeping quarters, a dining hall, kitchens, school rooms, nurseries, infirmary, chapel, mortuary, laundry, tailors shop, shoemakers shop, vegetable gardens and a small farm.

Established in the convict era, the Female Factory carried forward precepts that melded together poverty, immorality, and criminality where subsequent institutions of ‘care’ became a core element of Australia's welfare system. For nearly 200 years the institutions of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct provided shelter, education and oversight of thousands of vulnerable women and children, but they were also often places of poor treatment and abuse. Due to the moral judgment that was imposed on them, women and children who lived in poverty or who were considered to be outside social acceptability had a distinctive experience of institutionalisation. While resident in institutions and afterwards, the experiences of these institutionalised women and children were frequently disregarded and dismissed. Considering the historical failure to recognise people’s experiences, and the difficulty many former residents feel in telling their stories, the Precinct can present the experiences of these women and children in a way which allows the Australian community to recognise and witness the reality of institutionalisation. ​

Institutionalisation was progressively abandoned as a widespread model of care in the 1960s and 1970s in Australia, and the Apology to Forgotten Australians in 2009 highlighted the trauma experienced by children in institutions throughout Australia.


The sandstone buildings and walls that stand along the river were quarried from the land beneath them. The story of the local Indigenous people is still here today: it can be felt in the walls and halls of the institutions and beneath the culverts and streets of Parramatta.

Allowan...we live, we remain. 

Darug Elder Aunty Leanne Tobin

Deep History - Ancient Lands & Traditional Custodians

Australia's First Nations people lived for thousands of years along the beautiful, lush waterways of the Parramatta River. The traditional clans of the area are the Burramattagal, as in ‘burra’ the eel (Parramatta area) and the Wallumattagal (Ryde area) as in ‘wallumai’ the snapper fish of the Darug language group. 

On the river flats & plains, creeks and mangrove swamps, the people fished with pronged spears and handlines and traversed the water in bark canoes. Smoke from the many small fires at the different camps or in the canoes, could be seen drifting on top of the river’s surface and through the tall stands of trees. Life was easy and food plentiful and traps and nets would be scattered along the banks or in the water providing local shellfish, birds, flying fox and other game. People collected the wide varieties of bush-food plants that grew so in profusion along the water. Sounds of laughter, singing and ceremony filled this place of harmony and abundance. 

The Burramattagal had marked sites along this river. Some were marked as women’s places and further away, hidden from camp, secret men’s ceremonies would be carried out. Before settlement, where the saltwater from the harbour meets with the freshwater, the north bank of the river, where the convict female factory and later institutions were built, has been said to have once been a women’s site for collecting and gathering and ceremony.

First Encounters

The first encounters between the foreigners in boats and the local people in 1788 were friendly, with laughter and mimicry on both sides. Systems of barter began initially with the Darug exchanging fish for salt beef and bread. Their lives changed forever the following year when armed marines built an earthwork fort at Parramatta and prevented the local people from moving through their country. The new farms being built were destroying the local yam beds and food sources along the river. As the local people were denied access and their traditional land farmed, they replaced the dwindling food sources with the corn growing in their place, resulting in retaliation from the farmers and troops.  

In April 1789 a smallpox epidemic broke out and swept through the country devastating the clans around Parramatta and wider regions. More than two thirds of the local Indigenous population died and the river was soon a place of great sorrow; the dead too numerous to bury with proper ceremony and the land was no longer accessible to the local people. Life changed dramatically...

The main street of the new town is already contains at present 32 houses completed, 24 feet by 12 each, on a ground floor only, built of wattle plastered with clay, and thatched. Each house is divided into two rooms, in one of which is a fireplace and brick chimney... More are building, in a cross street stand nine houses for unmarried women and exclusive of all these are several small huts where convict families of good character are allowed to reside. Watkin Tench 1790

The number of women employed at the Factory is one hundred and fifty; they have seventy children; there is not any room in the Factory that can be called a bedroom...There are only two rooms and these are both occupied as workshops; about 80 feet long and 20 wide, in these rooms are 46 women daily employed; 20 spinning wool upon the common wheel and 26 carding...these rooms are crowded all day, and at night such women as are confined for offences, and a few others who have no means whatever of procuring a better abode, sleep among the wheels, wool and cards.

Arrival of Europeans

​In April 1788, four months after the arrival of the First Fleet, an expedition led by Captain Arthur Phillip reached the upper reaches of the Parramatta River. Here, on the river's wooded grasslands, the settlement of Parramatta was established in November 1788. 

First known as ‘The Crescent’ then Rose Hill and finally Parramatta in 1791 after the local Burramatta people, until the late 1840s Parramatta was a significant location in the administration and economy of the penal colony of New South Wales. The first 10 Governors of NSW resided at what today is known as Old Government House in Parramatta Park. 


Parramatta Township & Gaol c1813. J.W. Lewin, NSWSL

Convict Women & the Factory Above the Gaol

In these early years convict women were assigned as hut keepers to work gangs, marines, settlers, emancipated convicts, or if married, to their husbands. Convict women were seen as a burden on the public purse and a threat to the moral fabric of society. This view was particularly espoused by the Rev Samuel Marsden who agitated for a secure place of confinement and industry for them.


As the population grew, so did the need for a secure place of confinement for convict re-offenders and in 1796 the town's first gaol was built on the north side of the river. This log walled construction was destroyed by arsonists in December 1799 then rebuilt in 1802 with a second floor added in 1804 to accommodate women.

Known as the Factory above the Gaol, by the end of 1804 twelve looms were at work on linen, woollen and sailcloth weaving under the supervision of Dundee weaver George Mealmaker.


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Pastoral View from the North east showing Government House in the distance and Parramatta Gaol (Factory Above the Gaol) c1819, SLNSW Attributed to Jacques Arago

Went up to Parramatta early this morning in the Carriage accompanied by Major Antill. — After Breakfast went to the Place Selected for Building the Factory and Barrack for the Female Convicts on the Left Bank of the Parramatta River – where I met Mr. Greenway the Govt. Architect and the Contractors Messrs. Watkins & Payten – and at 12,O'Clock laid the Foundation Stone of this New Building in the usual Form; giving the Workmen Four Gallons of spirits to drink Success to the Building. Lachlan & Elizabeth Macquarie Archive 9 July 1818 

A new Factory & Barracks

1830 sitemap.jpg

The Factory above the Gaol proved both functionally and structurally inadequate and faced with growing criticism, Governor Macquarie selected a new site for a new Factory and Barracks in 1816.

The location chosen originally formed part of Governor Bligh's land grant, bordered to the north by a 30 acre allotment granted to Charles Smith in 1792 which was later purchased by Samuel Marsden around 1810. 

Nearby at the rivers edge, the colony's first water driven mill was constructed in 1798 however, unreliable water supply and damage by successive floods led to the disassembly of the mill by 1820.

Parramatta Female Factory

On 9 July 1818 the foundation stone was laid and in January 1821 the first convict women were transferred from the Factory above the Gaol marking the beginning of 200 years of institutional history at this site.

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