Historical Significance: HERstory and so much more…
Located on land within the current Cumberland Psychiatric Hospital, 5 minutes walk from Parramatta Gaol and close to Parramatta Park, the Parramatta Female Factory is the largest, most intact, and oldest surviving Female Factory in Australia. It is also the first purpose-built Female Factory and the one on which the rest were based. And yet, many people have not heard of the Parramatta Female Factory or seen it, because it is not a World Heritage site. Consequently, the Parramatta factory is seriously endangered; as convict historian Babette Smith has noted, the envisaged residential development of the site “will reduce the remaining buildings to unrelated quaint artefacts.”
The Factory at Parramatta was designed by Francis Greenway – the convict turned colonial architect who also designed Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks. Two of Greenway’s buildings are extant at the Factory in addition to other original Factory buildings and features. Male convicts were forced to build the factory – their tell-tale marks can still be seen all over the factory’s sandstone bricks. They built it for female convicts, as it was to serve as a women’s refuge, prison, labour exchange, workhouse, hospital, factory, and a marriage bureau all rolled into one.
But, in addition to the male convict stories and those of the estimated 5000 female convicts who went through the Parramatta factory alone, it is also a site of significance for children. Since Parramatta was the colony’s major town, many members of Australia’s first generation were born in the Factory’s “lying in” hospital – Australia’s first dedicated women’s hospital. Children born to the factory’s inmates lived at the Female Factory, too, until they were old enough or, more often, cramped conditions required them to be moved to the Macquarie-era orphanages; the Female Orphan School (now the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney campus) and the Male Orphan School at Liverpool.
The Female Factory can also lay claim to being the site of Australia’s first female workers’ riot. In 1827, the third class women (the crime class), who typically performed hard labour such as breaking rocks, “assailed the gates” like “Amazonian banditti” “with pick-axes, axes, and iron-crows” and “poured forth, thick as bees from a hive, over Parramatta and the adjoining neighbourhood.”
The reports of court proceedings also capture the voices of hundreds of female convicts sentenced to the Factory; women like Julia Allen, who accused her master of being “a dirty, disagreeable, detrimental little devil – a foul mouthed evil-speaking, sanctified, cantankerous coxcomb…” Such reports are wonderful in their own right, but imagine how much more powerful this kind of material could be for young people if the Female Factory was preserved as a site dedicated to educating them about and immersing them in the female convict experience in a multimodal way.
NOT JUST A CONVICT SITE
As a convict site, it is part of the UK and Australia’s shared criminal past. Nevertheless, its significance goes well beyond the cessation of convict transportation. This site and the larger precinct of which it is a part is also connected to our nation’s early history of mental health care as it went on to become the Parramatta Lunatic Asylum – a history that has continued right through to the site’s present-day Cumberland Psychiatric Hospital and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. In the late nineteenth century, other parts of the Female Factory Precinct became the Roman Catholic Orphanage and ultimately the infamous Parramatta Girls Home. The play “Parra Girls” by Alana Valentine is based on the oral history testimony of women who spent time in the Parramatta Girls Home.
So much history. So many important, funny, tragic, and confronting stories that cannot be forgotten, because this is just as much “our history” as the story of what happened at Gallipoli. To quantify this, it is estimated that 1 in 7 Australians are descendants of a Female Factory inmate – you might even be that one in seven without even knowing it.
Its cultural, historical, and architectural value is evident – many of Australia’s historians and architects have already gotten behind this cause. Its potential economic value as a tourist destination is also clear.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Sign and circulate the NEW Change.org petition.
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