Australia’s First Purpose-Built Female Factory
The Parramatta Female Factory is the largest and oldest surviving convict women’s site in Australia. Built by convict men, this multipurpose institution served the Colony of New South Wales between 1821 and c.1848 as a refuge for women, children, elderly and sick women; a marriage bureau; a place of assignment and moral reform; a penitentiary; a women’s hospital for the convicted as well as the free; and a workhouse all rolled into one.
This was the second Female Factory established at Parramatta, but the first purpose-built factory and the one on which all other Australian Female Factories were based. It is located within the Fleet Street Heritage Precinct, three kilometres north of the Parramatta CBD on 56 acres (approximately 23 hectares) of land currently occupied by Cumberland Hospital. The factory’s surviving buildings are found off Greenup Drive and Fleet Street, North Parramatta, just five minutes walking distance from Parramatta Gaol with which it shares a long history.
The First Female Factory, c.1802–1821
The stories of both the factory and the gaol began elsewhere at what is now known as Prince Alfred Park, Parramatta but was once the site of the colony’s first two gaols, court-ordered punishments, and executions. The second floor of the second gaol built at that location – a two-storey stone structure consisting of two, 80 by 20 foot (5.5 by 6 metre) rooms – was allocated to female convicts and was called ‘The Factory Above the Gaol.’ It was a wool and linen factory where women worked by day and it served as their refuge by night.
From its inception, then, the factory was intended to be a place where women who had not been immediately assigned to masters upon arrival in New South Wales were employed in tasks that were beneficial to the colony, and where corrupting influences could be kept at bay. In reality, this space was inadequate for achieving all of its aims as the majority of factory women could not find shelter there. Nevertheless, a larger space was not forthcoming until 1817 when Governor Macquarie started arranging the design and construction of a new purpose-built barracks for female convicts.
The Second Female Factory, 1 February 1821–c.1848
The Colonial Architect Francis Greenway, an emancipated convict, designed the new factory to be built on four acres (1.6 hectares) of land at its current location on the left bank of the Parramatta River in North Parramatta.
In 1818, Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone of the second Female Factory, and after almost three years of construction by contractors William Watkins and Isaac Peyton, Chief Engineer Major George Druitt, and the labour of countless male convict stonemasons, the new Female Factory opened its doors to inmates on 1 February 1821.
Governor Macquarie described the new factory as,
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.; Quarters 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 Buildings and said Grounds, consisting of about Four acres, being enclosed with a high Stone Wall and Moat or Wet Ditch.
But the nine-foot (2.7 metre) factory walls did not keep out the vices that had plagued convict women outside. Indeed, many contemporaries, including Governor Hunter and Roger Therry, claimed that, far from benefiting public morality, the factory’s concentration of large numbers of women who had reportedly already experienced the worst of human depravity made them the most corrupt members of colonial society; worse, even, than the men.
With a much larger group of women to manage and control at this new factory, a class system was introduced. In the first five years this was a two-class system but with the addition of more sleeping quarters commissioned by Governor Brisbane in 1823 to accommodate the ever-increasing number of women entering the factory for diverse reasons, a three-class system came into effect. The three-class system brought greater order to the factory population, distributed its paltry resources on the basis of good behaviour, and reflected its multi-purpose nature.
First-class Refuge, Labour Exchange, and Marriage Bureau
For first-class women, the factory was chiefly a refuge and labour exchange. Typically, women of first-class status were newly arrived convicts needing accommodation and employment while awaiting assignment to a master. They received superior food and clothing, had visitation rights and the freedom to attend church while the tasks they performed were suited to their gender and station – wool picking, cloth scouring, carding, weaving, laundry for the military, needlework, cleaning and straw plaiting – and they could earn their own money for extra work they completed.
Women of this class were eligible for more than just employment, though; they were also eligible to be chosen by a settler for marriage. This made the Female Factory, quite literally, a place where ‘a proper person to have a wife given him’ could pick a woman off the production line. Such men were not always so proper. More than one newlywed ex-inmate of the Factory appeared in the ‘Police Incidents’ of the newspapers, citing physical abuse at the hands of their husbands. Songwriter John Hospadaryk has explored the experience of a convict woman married off at the Parramatta Female Factory in his song The Female Factory, performed here as a medley with the traditional ballad The Convict Maid by Chloe and Jason Roweth:
Second-class Halfway House
Second-class women were not yet eligible for assignment to a master for reasons ranging from motherhood to minor criminal offences committed while on assignment, and had inferior food and clothing as well as fewer rights and privileges than their first-class counterparts. Since this was a probationary class, many second-class citizens of the factory may have been recently promoted from third class as they transitioned from third-class prisoner to first-class employable servant.
For those belonging to the third class, the factory was unequivocally a harsh women’s prison. Theoretically, third class was reserved for those guilty of what were then deemed serious crimes but analysis of evidence related to sentencing shows that what was considered a serious crime was often not consistent. In the case of convict Julia Allen, for example, ‘prefering [sic] a stroll in the Sydney streets…to scrubbing her master’s floors’ and ‘plainly telling him he was a dirty, disagreeable, detrimental little devil—a foul mouthed evil-speaking, sanctified, contonkerous [sic] coxcomb, and she’d be d—d before she’d work’ was enough to earn her a sentence of six weeks in the factory’s third class. On the other hand, when Isabella Wass was found guilty of the more violent crime of ‘amputating a woman’s finger with a fine set of masticators,’ she was given two weeks less than Julia.
Since the factory’s opening in 1821, females of the criminal class were forced to complete hard labour more befitting male convicts, including breaking rocks for the construction of roadways. From 1826 women of the prison class also had their heads shaved. It was not long before individuals employed at the factory found a way to profit from this practice. At the time of Julia Allen‘s incarceration in June 1831, for example, ‘a traffic of a singular nature’ was being ‘carried on by some person attached to the Female Factory’ —’namely the sale of the women’s hair.’ Solitary confinement was also common with additional cells being commissioned for this purpose in the 1830s by Governor Gipps.
Australia’s First Women’s Hospital
A contrast to the brutality of the penitentiary element of the factory was the medical care available on site in a medical and maternity hospital designed by Greenway which still stands. Here, sick and injured women of all ages and, more often than not, expectant mothers (free or otherwise) received care. As such this was the first dedicated female health service in Australia.
Children born in the factory hospital to convict and/or destitute mothers were permitted to stay with them until the age of three (but often younger) at which time they were sent to nearby orphan schools such as the Male Orphan School at Liverpool (no longer extant) and the Female Orphan School now part of the University of Western Sydney campus at Rydalmere.
It is a sad fact that some children did not ever know anything other than the world within the walls of the Female Factory; the burial records of St. John’s parish reveal that many infants died before they even reached an age that would have allowed them to be transferred to the Orphan Schools. Many women also passed away during their incarceration in the Factory. They, too, were buried in unmarked graves at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Click to view the list of Female Factory deaths >>
At its best, the factory conditions were harsh but when severe overcrowding, bad management and reduced rations were added to the female convict experience, riots broke out.
The first of these occurred on 27 October 1827 with many of the women wielding pick-axes, storming the gates, and pouring onto the streets of Parramatta like ‘Amazonian banditti,’ according to one contemporary journalist. Four more riots took place at the factory in 1831, 1833, 1836 and 1843.
When transportation ceased in 1840, the Parramatta Female Factory soon became redundant. By the end of that decade the last of the inmates earned their tickets of leave or freedom and only a few elderly, mentally or physically ill women remained. At this point, the site officially became the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum, housing free and convict men and women diagnosed as criminally insane and mentally disabled. However, it also continued to be multi-purpose to meet the needs of an ageing convict population accommodating those who were invalid or paralysed, the sick, the elderly, and paupers (again, both free and convict).
Extant Buildings and Features
Though the main barrack building of the Female Factory was demolished in 1883, its sandstone blocks are thought to have been reused in the construction of a ward for 100 male patients of the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum; an impressive building that dominates the site today in the former second-class yard of the Female Factory. The Female Factory’s main gates were also demolished in 1909 to make way for government architect Walter Liberty Vernon’s Main Administration Block, but part of the original 1818 exterior walls that Macquarie wrote about still stand.
The Greenway Hospital and Greenway’s Matron’s Quarters, storerooms, and factory committee room where the women were assigned to masters and, alternatively, met their future husbands are also intact, as are the third-class sleeping quarters and penitentiary yard. The 1830s courtyard walls and Gipps Courtyard remain with discarded convict stone in situ but without the solitary confinement cells. In other parts of the site, later buildings from the post-factory era were constructed over the building footprints of workshops, kitchens, and washhouses.
Michaela Ann Cameron, “Parramatta Female Factory: Australia’s First Purpose-Built Female Factory,” Female Factory Online (2016) https://parramattafemalefactory.org/about/history/parramatta-female-factory, accessed [insert current date]
Geoff Barker, “Female Factory and the Thwaites and Reed Turret Clock,” Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015), http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2015/08/07/female-factory-and-the-thwaites-and-reed-turret-clock/, accessed 28 February 2017
Geoff Barker, “History of the Cumberland Hospital Precinct, 1792-1983,” Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015) http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/home/projects/cumberland-hospital-female-factory-precinct-1792-1983/ accessed 28 February 2017
Geoff Barker, “Parramatta Female Factory and Insane Asylum,” Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015), http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/parramatta-female-factory-and-insane-asylum/ accessed 28 February 2017
Geoff Barker, “Parramatta Hospital for the Insane Asylum, Destruction of ‘Female Factory’ buildings, Cumberland Hospital, 1878 -1983,“Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015) http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2015/08/07/parramatta-hospital-for-the-insane-destruction-of-female-factory-buildings-cumberland-hospital-1878-1983/ accessed 28 February 2017
Geoff Barker, “The First Female Factory, Prince Alfred Square, 1803-1821,” Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015), http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2015/08/12/the-first-female-factory-prince-alfred-square-1803-1821/ accessed 28 February 2017
Geoff Barker, “The Second Female Factory: 1818-1848,” Parramatta Heritage Centre (2015) http://arc.parracity.nsw.gov.au/blog/2015/07/28/the-second-parramatta-female-factory-1818-1848/, accessed 28 February 2017
Michaela Ann Cameron, “Factory Above the Gaol,” Female Factory Online (2016)
Michaela Ann Cameron, “Miss Julia Allen: A Female Factory Inmate,” The Old Parramattan, (2016), https://theoldparramattan.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/judith-julia-allen-a-female-factory-inmate/, accessed [insert current date]
Michaela Ann Cameron, “Prince Alfred Park, Parramatta,” The Old Parramattan, (2016), https://theoldparramattan.wordpress.com/2016/06/01/prince-alfred-park-parramatta/, accessed [insert current date]
J.C. Byrne, Twelve Years’ Wanderings in the British Colonies from 1835 to 1847, Vol. I, (London: Schuze and Co, 1848)
Judith Dunn, Colonial Ladies: Lovely, Lively and Lamentably Loose: Crime Reports from the Sydney Morning Herald Relating to the Female Factory, Parramatta, 1831–1835, (Winston Hills: Judith Dunn, 2008)
Denis Gojak, ‘Convict Archaeology in New South Wales: An Overview of the Investigation, Analysis and Conservation of Convict Heritage Sites.’ Australasian Historical Archaeology, 19, Special Issue: Archaeology of Confinement, (2001): 73–83.
Terry Kass, Carol Liston and John McClymont, Parramatta: A Past Revealed, (Parramatta: Parramatta City Council, 1996)
Roger Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Residence in New South Wales and Victoria, with a supplementary chapter on Transportation and the Ticket-of-Leave System, (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co, 1863)
An earlier version of this essay was published on the Dictionary of Sydney (2015).
 Denis Gojak, ‘Convict Archaeology in New South Wales: An Overview of the Investigation, Analysis and Conservation of Convict Heritage Sites,’ Australasian Historical Archaeology,19, Special Issue: Archaeology of Confinement,’ (2001): 76; Judith Dunn, Colonial Ladies: Lovely, Lively and Lamentably Loose: Crime Reports from the Sydney Morning Herald Relating to the Female Factory, Parramatta, 1831–1835 (Winston Hills: Judith Dunn, 2008), p.9
 Terry Kass, Carol Liston, and John McClymont, Parramatta: A Past Revealed, (Parramatta: Parramatta City Council, 1996), p.59
 Lachlan Macquarie, ‘Appendix to the Report of Major General Lachlan Macquarie, late Governor of the Colony of New South Wales, being A List and Schedule of Public Buildings and Works erected and other useful Improvements, made in the Territory of New South Wales and its Dependencies, at the expence [sic] of the Crown from the 1st of January, 1810, to the 30th of November, 1821,’ 30 November 1822, ‘Enclosure marked A,’ in J.T. Bigge, Report of the Commissioner of Inquiry into the State of the Colony of New South Wales, (New South Wales: House of Commons, 1822) viewed 24 June 2015; Terry Kass, Carol Liston, and John McClymont, Parramatta: A Past Revealed (Parramatta: Parramatta City Council, 1996), pp.97–99.
 Roger Therry, Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Residence in New South Wales and Victoria, with a supplementary chapter on Transportation and the Ticket-of-Leave System (London: Sampson Low, Son, and Co, 1863), p.217
 Carol Liston, ‘Convict Women in the Female Factories of New South Wales,’ in Gay Hendriksen, Trudy Cowley, and Carol Liston, Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, (Parramatta, N.S.W: Parramatta City Council Heritage Centre, 2008), p.36
 J.C. Byrne, Twelve Years’ Wanderings in the British Colonies from 1835 to 1847, Vol. I (London: Schuze and Co, 1848), pp.230–32
 Judith Dunn, Colonial Ladies: Lovely, Lively and Lamentably Loose: Crime Reports from the Sydney Morning Herald Relating to the Female Factory, Parramatta, 1831–1835 (Winston Hills: Judith Dunn, 2008)
 ‘Police Incidents: Julia Allen,’ The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 9 May 1831, p.3; ‘Police Incidents: Isabella Wass,’ The Sydney Herald (NSW : 1831 – 1842), Monday 23 May 1831, p.3
 Terry Kass, Carol Liston, and John McClymont, Parramatta: A Past Revealed (Parramatta: Parramatta City Council, 1996), p.98; ‘Life in the Factories,’ Convict Female Factories Research Association, accessed 10 June 2014
 ‘Riot at the Female Factory,’ Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Wednesday 31 October, 1827, p.2
 Parramatta Female Factory Friends Action Group, ‘History,’ Parramatta Female Factory Friends, accessed 10 June 2014
 Terry Kass, Carol Liston, and John McClymont, Parramatta: A Past Revealed (Parramatta: Parramatta City Council, 1996), p.136
© Copyright 2016 Michaela Ann Cameron