Initially the female factories in Australia were not just places of incarceration,they also provided a space where women could work for rations and for some, find refuge and a place to sleep. However over time this gave way to a system where classification, observation and separation were seen as the building blocks to reforming those Colonial Administrators felt were causing social unrest, or did not fit into society due to their own preconceived attitudes towards women.

This Pentonville model of surveillance, silence and separation was more noticeable in the Port Arthur Female Factory but was also adopted by administrators at the second Parramatta female factory. However they had little success in preventing the growth of the prisoners’ subculture or from keeping the classes separate and the Parramatta factory was in fact a strange hybrid of prison, refuge, workplace, school, home and in its latter stages asylum.[1]

In addition early Australian Governors felt convict women were a problem because their skills were not as exploitable as the physical muscle of their male counterparts. And as a result they saw convict women as a drain on the colony’s resources and economy.

To remedy this administrators married off convict women, or assigned them as servants. But in the absence of a specialised refuge, those who were unassigned as servants or married were often forced to either cohabitate with a male, or earn their money through prostitution to pay for quarters. Another problem was that the women with no fixed abode found it difficult to protect their weekly rations and many spent the last days of the week without any food.

In an effort to solve this problem Governor King incorporated a plan to establish a mill for weaving wool in the Colony with the establishment of a suitable industry to employ women convicts and provide a refuge for homeless women and their children.

Before King had left England in 1799, he had engaged a master weaver, Thomas Wise, to help establish the weaving industry but he drowned on the outward voyage. In 1801 King started the embryo workshop with women manufacturing rough woollen blankets but the industry really began in earnest after August 1803, when King entered into a contract with George Mealmaker (1768-1808) to manage work at new premises built on the old Parramatta gaol.[2]

By trade Mealmaker was a hand loom weaver and was transported as one of the ‘Scottish Martyrs’. It was also agreed that he would be paid for every loom that he constructed for the Factory.[3]

This idea of creating a ‘Female Factory’ had begun in 1803 during the construction of the Parramatta gaol (in what is now Prince Alfred Square) when King suggested the idea of adding an additional storey. This was to be used as a holding and a working-space for newly arrived convict women and became known as the first ‘Female Factory’.

The northern wall of the gaol was altered and a courtyard added to it along with a second floor above with two large rooms about eighty feet long and twenty wide [24 x 6 metres] with no access to the gaol itself. Women prisoners were free to come and go from the refuge after they had completed the work assigned to them each day.

By August 1804 Mealmaker had nine looms operating; two each at fine linen, duck and wool, one each at sailcloth and sacking and one for variable jobs. Some 2116 yards of cloth had been bartered for wheat through the commissariat.[4]

Mealmaker gradually increased the number of looms at the factory to twelve. Unfortunately Governor  Bligh, when he succeeded to the administration from King, was disinterested in the industry and the impetus in weaving was almost lost.

A fire in The Factory in 1807 accelerated Mealmaker’s death that was fast approaching because of ‘a propensity for whisky and snuff’. He died in absolute poverty and was buried in St John’s cemetery, unrecognised as the forerunner of the weaving industry in Parramatta.[5]

In May 1809 The Sydney Gazette published an article informing the public that the Factory was re-established under the direction of Benjamin Brewer. It also made it clear that the new administration wanted to continue the emphasis on work at the factory for it claimed it was

… open for the reception of Wool and Flax for the Fabrication of Woollen and Linen Cloths, on the same terms as when under the Superintendence of the late Mr. Mealmaker [6]

The work produced by the factory was however not enough to establish anyones fortunes and its standing within the community continued to be problematic right up until its demise under the administration of Mr. Oaks and Richard Rouse. This was made clear in 1818, some 14 years after it was built, when Rev. Samuel Marsden made the following observations on the factory.

The number of women employed at the factory under Mr. Oaks, the superintendent is 150. They have seventy children, and there is not any room in the factory that can be called a bedroom for the women and children. There are only two rooms, and these are both occupied as workshops; they are over the; gaol, and are about eighty feet long and twenty wide. In these rooms there are forty-six women employed daily, twenty spinning wool upon the common wheel and twenty-six carding. There are also in them the warping machine, etc., belonging to the factory. These rooms are crowded all day and at night such women sleep in them as are confined for recent offences, amongst the wheels, wool, and cards, and a few others who have no means whatever of obtaining a better abode. The average number of women who sleep in the factory is about: thirty on the whole. Many of these women have little and some no bedding. They all sleep on the floor. There is not a cradle or bedstead belonging to the factory. I do not deem ‘it either safe or prudent for even thirty women to sleep in the factory which has been crowded all day with working people, could this be avoided, as the air must be bad and contagious. Were the magistrates to compel even half the number of women, (with their children) to sleep in the factory which belongs to it, they could not exist. Not less than 120 women are at large at night to sleep where they can. I might further notice that many of the male and female convicts are much addicted to inebriety, and that the great number of licensed houses to sell spirituous liquors considerably increases the number of crimes. There are, on the whole, under the two principal superintendents, Messrs. Oaks and Rouse, one hundred and eight men, one hundred and fifty women, and seventy children, and nearly the whole of them have to find lodgings for themselves, when they have finished their Government task.[7]

In August 1816 the architect, Francis Greenway, and the Superintendent of Public Works, Richard Rouse, were asked to make a report on repairing the old gaol and Female Factory. By this time the two small rooms were barely able to accommodate the 200 women now trying to live and work in the space. [8] By 1817 only 60 out of 200 women using the factory were housed on the premises. [9]

In October Greenway reported the following to Captain Gill,

The men [in the prison] have access to the women above by what information I can obtain which should be done away with a soon as possible by removing the Factory entirely, as the present state of it is really disadvantageous and has a very bad moral tendency …  [10]

As a result of this report a larger second ‘Female Factory’, in North Parramatta [Cumberland Hospital East Precinct] was given the green light by Macquarie. This would be designed by Francis Greenway and was completed in 1821 by Isaac Payten in partnership with William Gooch.[11]


by-saGeoff Barker, Research and Collection Services Coordinator, Parramatta City Council Heritage Centre, 2015

[1] Kay Daniels, Convict Women, Allen and Unwin, 1998, p.104
[2] John McClymont Collection, original text, donated to the Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2014
[3] A. Chisholm (ed),.Australian Encyclopaedia ,Vol. 9, p. 309; G. Linge. Industrial Awakening, p. 31;  King to Hobart, 1 Mar 1804,HRNSW,vol. 5, p. 337
[4] Ibid Vol. 5, King to Hobart, 1 Mar. 1804, pp. 425-6
[5] M. Rowe, in JRAHS, vol. 43, pt. 6, 1957, George Mealmaker, the Forgotten Martyr, pp. 292-298
[6] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW : 1803 – 1842), Sunday 7 May 1809, page 1,
[7] John White, The female Factory (continued), Fifty Years Under the Lash, Cootamundra Herald, 9 June, 1906, p.4,
[8] J Broadbent and J Hughs, Francis Greenway Architect, Historic Houses Trust, Sydney, 1997, p.36
[9] Kay Daniels, Convict Women, Allen and Unwin, 1998, p.110
[10] Greenway to Gill, 12 October 1816, Mitchell Library, Bonwick Transcripts T20, pp. 3328-3329
[11] John McClymont Collection, original text, donated to the Parramatta Heritage Centre, 2014