House debates

Monday, 15 September 2008

Grievance Debate

Parramatta Female Factory Precinct

9:02 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to speak to an issue of grave significance for a special group of my constituents, and that is the state of the historical precinct on the bank of the Parramatta River, known as the Parramatta female factory precinct. The Parramatta female factory precinct has been a site for the incarceration and institutionalisation of women from 1804 to the present day, over 200 years. Institutions of various types have been housed there, opened and closed, rebuilt, expanded or added to the site. It is undoubtedly one of Australia’s most significant historical sites, yet it remains neglected and largely unknown. It was home to the first female convict factory in Australia, later an institution known as the Industrial School for Girls, then the Girls Training School and then the infamous Parramatta Girls Home. Its current use is as a prison for women.

Twenty per cent of Australians are descended from women who were housed, incarcerated or institutionalised on the site over its 200-year history under white settlement. I refer to its history under white settlement because it had a history dating back thousands of years before that. The Burramattagal clan of the Darug nation, from which Parramatta gets its name, had marked the site as women’s place generations earlier. It is where the saltwater from the harbour mingles with the freshwater of the river. It was a woman’s place for gathering and a site for ceremony and matrimony. The north bank of the river, where the female convict factory and later the institutions for girls were built, was a Burramattagal women’s site. For it to have been turned into such a place of suffering and punishment for women is one of the cruellest ironies in our history.

The rich but tragic history of the site—the appalling stories of abuse and intimidation, and its connection to so many contemporary women—was brought to my attention by Bonney Djuric of Parragirls, an extraordinary group of women who are still putting their lives together after a childhood in one of the most notorious institutions, the infamous Parramatta Girls Home. I am fascinated by this site, and I was fascinated by it before I knew its history. It is physically an amazing place, with its sandstone buildings and sandstone walls, unexplained until you know its history—a patchwork of styles built on top of each other over 200 years. It is hidden behind walls and imposing doors and nestles on the bank of the Parramatta River. For the architecture alone, it is an amazing precinct.

The Parragirls and their parent organisation, the Parramatta Convict Factory Precinct, have a personal interest in retaining the site, including the notorious Parramatta Girls Home. They are deeply and personally associated with the site because of their months or years of brutal incarceration within its walls. I am lending my support to those trying to elevate the precinct in the minds and hearts of Australians, to recognise the history of women that was played out on this site and to wonder with them whether it would be possible for any other site of such significance to stand unrecognised and unpreserved with its history untold.

The female factory at Parramatta was originally built in 1804 and acted as a workhouse, jail and holding area for newly arrived female convicts and their children. Female convicts assigned there were engaged in activities such as spinning and carding and even hard labour, such as breaking rocks. It was the first of the 12 convict factories built around Australia. From his office in Old Government House, just across the river, Governor Macquarie engaged Francis Greenway to design a new female factory and the building began in the precinct in 1818. The new Parramatta female factory was opened on the site in 1821 to house the hundreds of female convicts being sent to Parramatta. Before that opening, the female convicts were housed on the upper floor of the first Parramatta jail, up the road. In the factory the women did laundry, wove, spun fabrics and even did stone-breaking and a variety of other work. Up to 700 women and their children were at the factory at one time, and this number nearly doubled in the 1840s.

On arrival in the colony, all unassigned women were taken to the factory and even women signed out would spend some time there. Female prisoners were selected for transportation to Australia partly because of their trade skills, and Australia’s first exports came from the female factory in Parramatta. The cloth that was spun and woven there by the women was sold in England, and that was the beginning of Australia’s export trade. It was also the site of Australia’s first industrial action, with the riot of 1827, caused by a lack of food, when 100 women broke out of the facility and converged on the town demanding food from local shop owners. Eleven other female factories were built in New South Wales and Tasmania but Parramatta’s remains the best preserved. The end of convict transportation from Britain in 1840 coincided with an economic depression that reduced employment prospects for assigned female convicts, and the factory was their only refuge. In 1841 the census of the colony placed 1,168 women, 236 under the age of 14, within the walls of the factory. The overcrowding was horrendous and in 1842 around 100 women again rioted over the maladministration.

In 1847 only 124 women and their 48 children remained, and the factory was reassigned as a convict and lunatic establishment. Meanwhile, in 1841, an orphanage was built adjoining the site and, in 1844, with the arrival of children from a Catholic orphanage in Waverley, it was renamed the Roman Catholic Orphan School. In 1886 the school was asked to vacate the building, and the Industrial School for Females was declared on 1 April 1887, with the transfer of girls from Biloela. At that time, only one class of school was maintained by the government for orphans and destitute children. There were two classifications of children: those considered destitute, abandoned or orphaned, who were deemed as not corrupt, and those who were deemed as having tendencies towards criminal behaviour. The Parramatta Industrial School for Females held both classifications of children, and it was very much an institution. In 1897 additional isolation cells were built, and in the following year there was the second of a number of riots because of a lack of food. By 1910 there was, however, a growing awareness that not all the girls sentenced to the Parramatta industrial school were corrupt and this saw the establishment of a training home on the adjacent acre. The school was intended for girls of uncontrollable character but not of immoral tendencies. But, a few years later, again trends changed and the schools were merged again and renamed the Parramatta Girls Home, with even more isolation cells being built in 1934.

The year of 1961 saw a repeat of a series of riots, and a derelict colonial jail at Hay in regional New South Wales was gazetted as a maximum security annexe of the Parramatta Girls Home and was named the Hay Girls Institution. Tales told by both the Parra girls and the Hay girls are of deprivation, of harsh discipline, of life behind walls, of keeping their eyes down, of beatings and of rape. Most of these girls had not committed any offence but had merely been placed in institutions under child welfare legislation. Their crimes included being neglected, being exposed to moral danger, being homeless or being uncontrollable. Many had run away from home because of violence and many were there simply for being the Indigenous children who later became known as the stolen generation.

In 1973 a series of protests called for the closure of welfare institutions and in October the following year, 1974, the Parramatta Girls Home was renamed Kamballa and continued to operate under the management of the Child Welfare Department. In 1980 the Department of Corrective Services took over part of the site and established the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre. It was closed, finally, in 1986, some 99 years after it had opened under a different name. In the near-century from 1887 to 1986, around 30,000 girls aged from 11 to 18 passed through the various incarnations of what became known as the Parramatta Girls Home.

The site has a long history of abuse, degradation and shameful conditions for both women and children, firstly as the Female Convict Factory and then through the Parramatta Industrial School for Females and finally the Parramatta Girls Home and Kamballa. It is an ugly story but it is a history that we should not back away from. It is a history that needs to be told. As many as one in five Australians today are descended from women who were once incarcerated in the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, and members should consider that for a moment—that is, 20 per cent of all Australians, well over four million people, have a direct family link to women who were incarcerated on that site over its two-century history. Yet, while the Cascades Female Factory in Tasmania has been excavated extensively and is under consideration for World Heritage listing, there have been no similar archaeological digs conducted in Parramatta. We need to preserve this site and celebrate its heritage.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the work of Bonney Djuric, who has worked so hard to raise the profile of this site. In 1970 Bonney spent nine months in the Parramatta Girls Home, when she was just 15 years old. Her experiences are mirrored by the many stories told by the report of the 2004 Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into children in institutionalised care, Forgotten Australians. Members who have not read that report would be well served by doing so.

The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct is an extraordinary site, and if you peek in through the gates your imagination will run wild as mine did and you will wonder why such a treasure and such an opportunity to preserve and acknowledge our history has been ignored for so long.

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