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Roman Catholic
Orphan School 

Built on a two and half acre allotment adjoining the Female Factory third class penitentiary yard, the Roman Catholic Orphan School was the first government orphanage for Catholic children in Australia.

Operating from 1844 to 1886, the Orphanage bridges the era in Australia's history from penal colony to free settlement. Today, this historic site holds particular significance for Forgotten Australians and the Stolen Generations as a foundational site in the establishment and evolution of Australia's welfare and education systems.


Established in response to petitions by the Catholic community of NSW, the Orphan School occupied temporary premises at Waverley while the new institution was being built. Prior to its establishment Catholic children were sent to the Protestant dominated Male Orphan School at Liverpool and Female Orphan School at Rydalmere. 

Construction began in 1840 and though completed in 1843 occupation was delayed with the first children transferred from the Waverley site on the 8 March 1844 under the supervision of Matron Martin.

These destitute children whether born in the Factory and baptized by a Romish Priest at the desire of the mother or bred in the Catholic Faith by their parents, are placed indiscriminately in the Protestant orphan Schools, where the doctrines of the Church of England are taught, and its forms observed to the entire exclusion of any creed. Governor Bourke 1836. 

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Roman Catholic Orphan School c1866. SAG 5571 J.K.S. Houison collection

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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 56 x 22 ft. At the rear of the building fronting the (governor's) 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.

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Children in front of  RCOS hospital c1866


Designed by colonial engineer Henry Ginn, the Orphan School was a plain rather austere colonial Georgian barracks style structure of three storeys and basement with a well proportioned façade divided into a three part Palladian composition and a classically inspired entrance portico.

Built from locally quarried sandstone and roofed with slate shingles with separate outbuildings ranged across the perimeter boundary, plans indicate the basement contained a dining room, masters kitchen and cellar; with the ground floor containing a school room, master's parlour and storeroom and the upper floors, dormitories, staff and servants quarters.

Additions & Expansion

A gatekeeper's cottage was built to the south of the main barracks in 1849, followed by a wash house and laundry in 1850 and an abutting two story annex forming the L shape south west range. With dormitories above and a schoolroom on the ground floor, a Chapel was added to this range in 1856. Between 1860 and 1862 a new lavatory/ablutions block, and school house was built parallel to the wash house and a new laundry along the rear boundary. The earlier laundry/washhouse was converted to a kitchen/scullery with staff quarters above and the ground floor schoolroom to a dining room.

Once completed the earlier outbuildings were demolished and the new south west range linked to the main barrack by a covered way.

In 1863-64  a free standing two storey brick building was constructed to the south of the lavatory/ablutions buildings. Purpose built as the orphanage hospital, this building is known today as Bethel.

In 1867 a brick three storey north wing was added to the main and in 1876-77 an additional south wing built forming this building into the present day  H shape with a balcony across the front joining these wings. 

The property area increased to 69 acres with additional land acquired in 1849, 1851, 1853 and 1865. These additions were recorded on the official survey plans, however title deeds were not lodged which later caused heated debate between the Government and Church authorities.

"I most respectfully beg leave to state when I was attached to the female factory at Parramatta about three years ago, I have had my daughter Mary Sheedy under my control at that Establishment and being at that period unable to provide substance for her, I left her in the care of Mrs. Bell the Matron of the Factory. I further beg leave to state that I made application for her at the Nannery (sic) School a short time ago and I was informed to make application to your Honour for admission and approval for the Restoration of my Daughter." Margaret Sheedy Windsor 1 Sept 1844.


Group of Boys in front of dining room, RCOS. C 1866

"The wages earned by me since the death of my husband have not exceeded five shillings per week. No possible security can at present be offered towards the maintenance and education of my children and your petitioner wishing to retain the youngest child ( a boy of eleven months) would no doubt experience difficulty in procuring a situation." Hannah Connor 1871.

'I suppose this must be done but we shall have half the children in Sydney in these establishments soon.' 
Governor Denison, 1855

There being no means of keeping the girl here, I have been under the necessity of sending her for protection to the Bathurst gaol. The father of the girl is supposed to have been run over and killed by an omnibus in Sydney some time since, and the mother, who is believed to be still alive, is an abandoned woman of intemperate habits and quite unfit for the charge of her daughter, even could her residence be found. Sofala, April 1863

The Children

Children between the ages of 2 and 11 of Catholic parents were admitted under the authority of the governor, 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.

Female Factory to Orphan School

In the early years most of the children were of convict parentage with some transferred from the adjacent Female Factory. Among them were orphaned siblings Helen and Thomas Alpin, and Ellen Davis whose mother  transported for life, had arrived on the Lady Rowena. Another was Mary Sheedy whose mother petitioned the governor for the return of her daughter in 1844.

Referred to the Visiting Magistrate of the Factory who replied; Margaret now free, was a well behaved hard working woman when she was at the Factory, her daughter Mary Sheedy is 8 years of age and is at present in the Roman Catholic Orphan School. Mary was released to her mother on 16 Sep 1844.

Babies & Infants

Occasionally exceptions were made for younger children such as Catherine Woods, 10 m, an illegitimate child. Her mother, Maria Curren, had left her husband after a disagreement, taking three children with her. Mary Anne, Margaret and James. After leading what was described as an abandoned life, she apparently became insane and wandered away with the baby, leaving her other three children in the bush. Mary died of exhaustion in the Wellington lock-up, where Catherine's reputed father had died some months earlier, so the child was given to a woman to nurse and later admitted to the orphanage.

A Tragic Death on the Goldfields

It was quite usual for an entire family of siblings in dire circumstances to be admitted, for instance the Connolly children, Cecelia, James, Julia, Mary and Thomas, whose mother Henrietta had been found dead on the goldfield in a miserable hut comprised of torn gunny bags. In the hut were two boys aged 6 and 8. Their mother died of puerperal disease caused by insufficient shelter and nourishment after giving birth to twins with one found in her dead mother's arms and the other cradled by the younger boy, who sat crying because his mother would not wake up. The Father had left in search of work.

Children in Prisons

Among those whose parents were convicted criminals were the Walsh children, Catherine, Deborah and Ellen. Both parents had been tried for the murder of soldiers. Sadly Catherine died in the orphanage in 1854 and is buried in an unmarked paupers grave at St Patricks cemetery North Parramatta.

Another was Jane Duval whose mother Margaret, was serving a sentence of hard labour in Parramatta Gaol. Jane 2y2m was admitted to the orphanage on the recommendation of the prison surgeon, who considered that the child's health was failing from confinement in the jail. Jane died in the orphanage in 1853 and is buried at St Patrick's cemetery North Parramatta.

Destitute Widows & Children

In the majority of applications for admission the father was dead and the mother, destitute. This was the case for the Mann siblings, Adam 7, and Anna 6, whose father, a German emigrant, had died on the voyage from Antwerp to New South Wales, leaving his wife, Eulalia Mann, who was about to give birth, in great poverty were admitted to the orphanage with Governor Denison's reluctant approval. 

Widow, Hannah Connor destitute and unable to gain regular employment requested that her children be admitted to the orphanage in 1871.


​Deserted Children

Isabella Green, 9, from Sofala, deserted by her parents and cared for by neighbours for 3 years, was handed over to police authorities and sentenced to one month for her protection appeared before the Bench at Braidwood in 1863 where the terms of her imprisonment were extended because there was no one willing to care for her, admitted to the orphan school.

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(L) Mother Mary Magdalen Adamson

(R) Mother Gertrude Bryne

Management & Staff

The orphan school operated under a Board of Management with both lay and religious staff employed by the government. From 1839 until 1847, Sisters of Charity attended at the school to assist the Matron.

Miss Bourke was first appointed matron in 1836, succeeded soon after by Miss Smith and then Mrs Martin in 1838. In 1844 Mrs Sutherland was appointed matron, followed by Mrs Frances Johnston in 1855 then Mrs Mac Dermott in 1859. Matron Mac Dermott resigned on 31 March 1859 when the Sisters of the Good Shepherd (later known as the Good Samaritans), took over management of the orphanage. Mother Magdalene Adamson was then appointed matron and in 1876 was replaced by Mother Gertrude Byrne who held the position until the institution's closure in 1886.


Conditions & Routines

In the summer months children would rise at 5am with prayers said, begin their days work until breakfast at 7.30am.More prayers then school and work duties till noon, lunch, then school and work from 2 to 4pm then dinner and to bed at 7.30pm.

Emphasis was placed on religious instruction, basic education and training with girls required to carry out domestic duties, bedmaking and laundry work. Boys cleaned floors, scrubbed tables, collected milk or worked outside on farm duties. Children were apprenticed out as domestics and labourers upon reaching 14 years of age.

Apart from attending Mass at the local parish Church, children were not permitted to leave the school. Parents could visit and there were frequent visits from priests.

All clothing was numbered with boys supplied three day suits and a Sunday suit, and the girls three smocks and aprons.

Reports & Inquiries

The conditions within the school were frequently criticised with the first official Inquiry occurring in 1855 reporting that:

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, the 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 which are 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... 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. - Schooling is undertaken by three teachers one each for the Boys, Girls and Infants, older children were employed in the laundry or farm. Report on the orphan schools at Parramatta 15 Oct 1855.


Last Days

In 1874 the Public CHarities Commission found the orphanage overcrowded, with 267 children crowded into buildings designed to accommodate 250. The commisssion noted that there were no proper bathing arrangements and that drainage was bad with no basins provided in the girls lavatory.

The findings of the Commission heralded reforms which led to the State Children Relief Act (1881), the introduction of the Boarding out (foster care) system and changes in control and funding of schools. Following the withdrawal of government funding, the Ortphan School was given notice to vacate and on 12 August 1886, children and staff were relocated to the Roman Catholic Industrial School at Manly. In April 1887, the premises were officially proclaimed as the Girls Industrial School, Parramatta.

What Remains?


Most of the original buildings remain, except for the demolition of the lavatories/ablutions block and the school house in 1969.

Remembering the Children

In 2013 the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Assoc established a garden around the former hospital building known today as Bethel. This garden was dedicated by the Honourable Professor Marie Bashir Governor of NSW in 2014. A large memorial quilt made by Parragirls, with the names of children who died in the orphanage and are buried at St Patrick's cemetery North Parramatta now hangs in Bethel.

Research & Records

We compile and collect records and undertake research on the history, heritage and legacy of this site. As a volunteer run organisation we are unable to assist with inquiries on family history research and recommend the Society of Genealogists, (SAG).

For people undertaking research into child welfare institutions we recommend the Find and Connect service.

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