The Female Factory 200th Anniversary Podcast was prepared from a recording undertaken by Michelle Goodman [MG] interviewing Anne Mathews [AM] on 12 December 2017 at the Parramatta Heritage Centre for the City of Parramatta Council Archives.

You can listen to the interviews here –  200 Years of the Female Factory.

More information is also available about the Second Female Factory and the history of the Cumberland Hospital Precinct.


[MG:] Australia’s first purpose built establishment for convict women sent to the colony of New South Wales was built on a four-acre portion of land on the upper reaches of the Parramatta River. Designed by emancipated convict Francis Greenway, the foundation stone of the Female Factory was laid in 1818 by Governor Macquarie. In 1821, convict women were transferred from their living spaces above the town gaol. The Female Factory operated as an assignment depot, prison, place of industry and medical facility until 1847, when it was repurposed as an invalid and lunatic asylum.

Here, local Parramatta historian, Anne Mathews speaks about the historic experiences of the first women to inhabit the Female Factory.

Episode 1: The Female Factory: The First Women

[AM:] The female convicts that came out, they were in those buildings and one in seven of the Australians today have an ancestor who was in those buildings. The female convicts that came out to Australia and that were in the Female Factory, had a hard time. They were brought to a land that they didn’t know, away from their family and friends. And a lot of them had to leave their children behind, their husbands or maybe their husbands were even out here already. They might have been sent out as convicts.

The ladies were bewildered, I think, by the time they got here and a lot of them did play up which, of course, the military and the magistrates and everybody, were very hard on them and they added to their sentences.

They may have got sent out here for seven years for something very trivial but it might have been added onto that they finished up ten years or even longer in the factory. They were able to be assigned out but even that, they weren’t treated properly when they were assigned out. And they finished up back in the Factory, they were able to marry and they had a choice – it wasn’t forced onto them.

A lot of them used marriage as a way of getting out of the Factory. A lot of them, once they were out, they absconded and finished up back in the Factory. Some of them made a go of it and went onto become good Australians, good citizens. They were farmers or they ran a shop or the husband might have been a tailor or might have been a shoemaker, you know. Their children went on and became decent peoples.

Episode 2: The Female Factory: The First Building

[AM:] The original Factory was the top floor of the gaol in Prince Alfred Square: it was 80 feet long by 20 feet wide and it was established for 30 women. Unfortunately, there was more than 30 women staying there. There was no sleeping quarters or anything for them. They had to sleep on what they were working with, which was greasy wool or ‘flax’, because it was a factory.

They spun the wool and they had it woven into fabric for the colony and that’s what was used to make the slops for the convicts. Some of the Settlers would bring their wool in and they would spin it and weave it and the Settlers would pay to have it done.

At once stage there were 200 or 300 women connected with this Factory. Because it was overcrowded, the magistrates said that anyone that was sent there by the magistrates had to stay there but anyone that was sent from the ship could go out and get their own accommodation. Unfortunately, that led to a lot of them being sent to the Factory anyway because they had to pay for their accommodation and they had to earn the money whichever way they could. And a lot of that didn’t go over with the magistrates very well.

So, in 1816 after Samuel Marsden pushed to have a new Factory built because what was there wasn’t standing up to all the wear and tear, they asked for tenders to build a new factory for 300 women. Francis Greenway got the job of designing… of tendering for the new building and it was built between 1818 and 1821. On the first of February 1821 the ladies from the old Factory marched up to the new Factory in Fleet Street.

Episode 3: The Female Factory: The “classes” of women

[AM:] The new Factory was to house 300, and everyone was in together. There were girls that had a little bit more spirit than other girls. The spirited ones, unfortunately, were encouraging the not-so-spirited ones to misbehave. So, they decided in 1822 that it had to be split up into three ‘classes’.

First Class were those women that used it as a refuge. They were the ladies that came straight from the ship; they may have had children, they may have been elderly, or they just weren’t assigned straight from the ship, they were waiting to be assigned, they were waiting to be married, or their husband might have been in jail, or he might have been deceased. So they used it as a refuge, or they may already have been assigned out, and their master didn’t have any further use for them so they were sent back to the First Class. Those ladies did needlework for the orphanage, they did it for the hospital, they did it for the Factory. They also took in needlework from the Settlers, and the Settlers would pay.

Then there were the Second Class – they were the ladies who were sent there for being drunk in the street; they might have misbehaved in First Class. They might have assaulted somebody or they might have behaved themselves in Third Class and were sent down to Second Class. Those girls did the washing for the Factory, for the Orphan School, for the hospital and for Settlers if they sent it in to be washed.

Then there was Third Class, and Third Class were the real spirited ones. They were the ones that had been in and out of the Factory few times, they were the ones that were continually going before the magistrate. They were drunk all the time and they just misbehaved. They would be insolent to their mistress or their master, so they were sent to Third Class. And Third Class is the ones that you can find the most information about. And Third Class unfortunately had their hair cropped when they were sent into Third Class, that was one of your punishments. They would break stones for the Parramatta roads, they would even chop the wood if the male convicts could not get there to chop the wood… if they weren’t available. They will do the oakum picking which is picking the tar off the ropes from the ships and they would spin the wool or the ‘flax’. The fabrics that were made in the Factory were Parramatta Cloth. They would make a course cloth that was used for convict clothes; they would make sail cloths that was used to make the sails for the ships to go back to England.

Episode 4: The Female Factory: The men of the Factory

[AM:] The Female Factory was actually built by the male convicts, so the story of the Female Factory is as much a male story as it is a female story. Male convicts would be marched from the barracks in Macquarie Street down to Fleet Street, they would quarry the stone in Fleet Street from the quarry there and take it across the road. And they built the Female Factory before the girls moved in.

They had rusticated blocks and each convict had to do a certain amount a day so, he would mark it either with his sparrow picking going diagonally one way or the other way, or up or down, or big holes or little holes, or even with crosses on them.

And because of the way it was done, when the girls moved in they found that the girls could use it as a ladder to climb out and there were quite a few girls did that and escaped. So they got the male convicts to come in and shave them all back so that they… well, first of all they bevelled off the top edge of the blocks, and that was to stop the girls. Well, they had to get them back again a third time to shave them all back so that they were flat. And you can see it on the stones that are still there where they were shaved back. But they also somehow or other left one just one wall on the back of the hospital that has the bevelled edge and the markings of the male convicts. Why that wall got left, I don’t know, but I’m so grateful because you can see the work of the men.

The male convicts were also used to chop the wood, to bring the stones in for the Third Class to break up and they also were used to clean out privies. But the ones that were cleaning out the privies were brought from the jail in irons. Sometimes those privies had been overflowing for a week or so, and those poor men had to do that. So it wasn’t just the females that had a hard time, it was the males also.

Episode 5: The Female Factory: The buildings still standing

[AM:] We still have actually four buildings at the Female Factory that are original.

We have the Matron’s Quarters, although it has been extended up and it’s had bits and pieces added to it, but the body of the building is still there.

And we have the hospital, which is a similar building, and they were both built in 1818.

We have the 1823 building of the Third Class which was a two-storey building, but is now only a single storey. It only had portholes around the top floor as ventilation, and small windows on one side of the bottom floor, but now has larger windows and it has windows up the top, even though there’s no floor in there.

And the fourth one was a little building that was built in 1838 and it was called the ‘Dead House’, or the morgue, and that is near the Gipp’s Yard.

Episode 6: The Female Factory: The riots

[AM:] Because of the riots that were at the Factory, the first one being 1827, and that was when the girls broke out because their rations had been cut on the changeover of matrons; they broke out and came to Parramatta to collect their own food. And the residents in Parramatta threw out food and drink and locked themselves and their families in their residences. They girls collected up what they could carry, and a lot of them were quite happy to be brought back to the Factory. Some of them went off into the bush to eat it and others went a bit further into the bush, but were brought back eventually. The military and the constables were sent out to bring the girls back… the military were sent out with fixed bayonets and were told to shoot to kill; thank goodness they didn’t have to. The girls… when they got back, the ring leaders were told that they would be put into solitary confinement and the girls said ‘one in, all in’.  So they were punished, but they weren’t put in solitary confinement.

1831, we had another break-out in February… another riot. With that one, we sent 37 girls up to Newcastle for the Factory up there. The girls were on a good wicket when they went up there. They were sent there for 3 year’s transportation; within 3 months, they had all been assigned out, so the girls, actually, were very lucky.

November of 1831, there was another riot, but it was only a small riot, and the girls from that one were put into solitary confinement.

1836, we had another riot, and the girls were sent to the jail cells in Prince Alfred Square as well as the ones at the Female Factory.

Episode 7: The Female Factory: Gipp’s extensions to the Factory

[AM:] In 1838, Governor Gipps decided he was going to build another set of cells. He built 72 cells. It was three storey building and there were 36 cells on the bottom floor that were 5 foot wide, 8 foot long and 9 foot ceilings. The next two floors had 36 between them; they were 12 foot wide, 8 foot long and 10 foot ceilings. The girls had a bed and a bucket. There were no windows downstairs or ventilation, and they were dark cells; they were supposedly for short-term prisoners.

Governor Gipps had them built and sent the plans to England and when he got the information back from England, they said you cannot build them like that, you must have ventilation, so he had to go through and then and put ventilation in downstairs.

There was a Matron’s cottage built beside it; the Matron was upstairs and downstairs was Administration for when the girls went into the cells.

These cells were used mainly for Third Class ladies, because Third Class were the ones that misbehaved the most and that… and the original 1818 dormitory, the main building, were pulled down when the Asylum took over and they were replaced by the building that is there now.

The clock that was in the original building when the building was pull down and the new one built… the workings of the clock were put into the building that is there now, and it had two extra dials added to it, and it is the one in the Clock tower; it is dated 1821. The bell that is above it is the original Female Factory bell, and it is dated 1820.

Episode 8: The Female Factory: The importance of water

[AM:] The Female Factory had a water system put in in 1827. Up until then, the girls used to go down to the river to collect water, and they had the pump put in in 1827, and I believe it was for the washing and everything else.

The Second Class girls did the washing and at one stage that was one of their punishments; and they had a least 12 of them at once at the tub doing the washing, so the laundry was built against the dividing wall between what is now Gipp’s Yard, and where the bowling green is now.

The Female Factory also supplied the orphan school next door with water; the Roman Catholic Orphan School was built in 1842, and they were getting their water from the Female Factory, because when the Female Factory closed and the Asylum took over in 1848, there is a letter that says that the water was to cease going to the orphan school. So, I suspect the orphan school had their own water supply from down the river. Prior to the Factory getting the laundry area and water, the girls used to take the washing down to the flat rocks near the river behind the Factory and they would do the washing down there.

Episode 9: The Female Factory: Everyday life for the women

[AM:] [The girls] would also go out the back to pick brush to make brooms, and at one stage the races were on… the first race track was in the Governor’s Domain which is the other side of the river to the Female Factory… and the girls were out picking brush one day, and they could hear everybody enjoying themselves over the other side of the river, and they decided, well, they wanted to go to the races too, so off they went. According to the newspaper one of the girls even ended up on the back a horse with the jockey. Some of the male convicts at also joined in, I don’t know where they came from but evidently they were there also, so the girls went to the races that day.

The girls made brooms and believe it was just for their own use in the Factory, I don’t know that they sold them at any stage. The girls had sewing to do, and if the Settlers wanted anything, the girls would do it after they had finished their allotted amount and they could earn money if they wanted to. This money was taken on their behalf and put into a bank account. Unfortunately, not all the money made it into the bank accounts but, you know, most of it did and at least they could earn a little bit. They didn’t really need it in the Factory unless they were buying contraband; there was a problem at one stage of spirits being thrown over the fence or delivered in bladders.

Episode 10: The Female Factory: From Factory to Asylum

[AM:] Towards the end of the Factory, after the transportation of female convicts finished, the Female Factory became redundant; it was just used for the infirm or what was classed as the ‘asylum inmates’, or the odd one that was sent there for a few days for being drunk in the street.

So in 1848 it was taken over by the Asylum, and they brought out the people from the other asylums and it became the main asylum along with Gladesville.


[MG:] You have been listening to Anne Mathews discussing her early experiences of the women of the Female Factory. This recording was prepared by the City of Parramatta Council in 2018, and features music by Chad Crouch.

The City of Parramatta acknowledges the Darug people as the traditional custodians of the land on which the Female Factory buildings stand.