Sydney Dark Colonial Past at the Parramatta Female Factory
Parramatta Female Factory was Australia’s first purpose built institution for the confinement of convict women and their children from 1821 to 1847.
Situated on four acres of land, alongside the Parramatta River, it was commissioned by Governor Macquarie, with the first female convicts transferred from the nearby factory, which was located above the old Parramatta Goal, in 1821.
It served as an assignment depot and shelter, a place of industry and punishment, a hospital and also traded as a medical facility for pregnant women. There was also a nursery for orphaned children.
Many convict women were held here for an unspecified period of time, whilst waiting to be assigned work, whilst others would come in for specific medical treatments, maternity care, or to serve a period of detention for offences they committed whilst under a colonial sentence.
On arrival, women would be searched, washed and clothed according to their classification.
First class women were put to work washing, sewing, haymaking and preparing wool and flax for weaving by the male convicts. Second class women, usually pregnant or invalid were given lighter duties, and third class women were out to heavy labour, such as stone breaking or oakum picking.
Picking oakum was one of the most common forms of hard labour in Victorian prisons in the UK, which was then brought over to Australia throughout the colonisation period. Prisoners were given quantities of old rope, which they had to untwist into many corkscrew strands.
After completing their daily quota, first class women could earn a small amount from their labour. And women were always encouraged to marry, thereby shifting responsibility for their upkeep and maintenance to their husbands. This arrangement did not always work out and many women would return to the factory for refuge and support.
It’s a fairly solemn experience wandering through the old grounds of the factory, and with stories of abuse and child neglect also, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for all the women and children who passed through the main gates of this factory, with many never seeing freedom again.
Onsite there is a local Men’s Shed, who rent a small space at the grounds. One of the men there came out too speak to us about the history of the grounds and shared some very sad stories where women doc children were excessively abused by authority figures on the grounds, late on in life as the factory converted into a hospital and orphanage in the 1960 and 1970s.
We were told under one of the main convict building from the original factory, there are prison cells deep underneath, where many children were taken and abused. Many of these children who are now adults return back to the grounds seeking council sessions from support workers who have an office on site today to assist in the recovery of traumatised victims who once lived on the grounds.
It seems even today, with the grounds now abandoned, the turbulent past of the female factory haunts many still today. And I wonder, although I don’t believe in curses, are such places with dark pasts curses forever from their horrid history, troubled by the souls who once lived in the buildings and forever will they be a dark place, void of happiness and joy.