Australia

Exploring An Old Female Orphanage

Dating from 1813, the old female orphanage of Parramatta is the oldest three-story building in Australia.

It’s a building that has fascinated me for many decades now. It sits in the Western University campus on James Ruse Drive in Paramatta. And up until a few weeks ago, I had no idea it was actually open to the public for anyone to go an explore.

Until recently I had no idea what the building was, or that you could actually enter the campus grounds to go visit it. In-fact, there is a map you can collect from the information centre inside the old orphanage which gives you a very detailed self-guided walking tour of the entire campus, which is more historical than I realised.

I’ve driven past this campus, admiring the old building for so long, so to discover you could actually go and explore it had me very excited. In case you hadn’t already noticed from previous blogs. I love my old 1800s Aussie colonial buildings and history.

Having been at different times a school for orphans and a psychiatric hospital, the building and its landscaped grounds are now part of the Parramatta South Campus of Western Sydney University.

Here’s a little background of the building:

When the British government decided to establish a heavily militarised penal colony in New South Wales for convicts of both sexes, little thought was given to the future of the children who would inevitably be born to convict and servant women from their relations with soldiers, employers and other convicts.

The colony’s first and second chaplains, Richard Johnson and Samuel Marsden, together with governors King, Bligh and Macquarie, all became involved in finding solutions to the problem of abandoned or neglected children roaming the streets of Sydney

Particularly as the children were located in the thick of Sydney city – Old Sydney Town as it was once referred to. Surrounded by prostitution, crime, slavery and varying other city like troubles of the time, it wasn’t safe for the children – especially the girls, to be located in such an area. Where a lot of the time, once they were too old to stay at the orphanage, they would end up being taken off the streets by nasty people, the moment they left the safe of the front doors to the city based orphanage.

‘Remote, helpless, distressed and young, these are children of the State …’, the Reverend Samuel Marsden wrote, expressing a significant new attitude that recognized government responsibility for children who were without adequate family support.

The decision to move them to a much quieter, healthier, and more rural location, simply just made sense. There they could learn how to write, read, sew, farm, cook and clean, providing them with essential life skills to help them develop into young women capable of finding work and even a husband (as such was the era), once they left the orphanage. And less likely to end up on the streets. Mrs Macquarie played a vital role in the assistance of developing this orphanage.

Though it took some time to be built and completed, as the entire building is built by contractors, labourers. No slaves or convicts were used at all for the building. Which meant, money played a huge part in the process. When it ran out, there were delays, until more cam through and building of the orphanage could commence again.

Elizabeth Macquarie, the wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, chose the design of the Female Orphan School at Parramatta based on her own childhood home in Scotland, ‘Aird’s House’. Aird’s House was an elegant, well-proportioned building in the neo-classical Palladian style, which expressed eighteenth-century architectural values of order and restraint. Although a close resemblance, it differs from the original in being constructed from convict-made colonial sandstock bricks.

When the school opened in 1818, it became home to between 100 and 200 girls aged 3-13 years. Many of these girls were not in fact orphans. Some had been abandoned by their parents, or were the children of single mothers without means to support them. In other cases the mother had died in childbirth and the father was unable or unwilling to care for his daughter. Some were daughters of domestic servants whose employers would not allow the child to live with them. In some cases the parent was a convict who had re-offended and been sent on to a different penal colony, or the father was a soldier reassigned to duties in England.

Continuing its association with marginalised members of society, the Orphan School building was repurposed in the late 1880s as a healthcare facility for psychiatric patients. At first a branch of Parramatta hospital, in 1890 it became an independent entity, the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital. For nearly 100 years, patients suffering from mental illnesses ranging from ‘lunacy’ to senile dementia were treated there.

Then in 1982, for the second time in its history, a change in community attitudes and an accompanying shift in public policy led to the closure of the building, when a NSW Government commission recommended that large psychiatric hospitals be replaced by smaller ‘homes’ and community care for the mentally ill.

Eventually the building became abandoned and in most part, a lot of it fell into disarray. Though, thanks to its strong foundations, in remained strong and stood fast against environmental damages, and eventually was restored (to a point) around the 1970s.

Under the custodianship of Western Sydney University, the Female Orphan School is now home to the Whitlam Institute, a centre for public policy research and debate named after former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. A permanent exhibit paying tribute to Whitlam’s Prime Ministership (1972-1975) is accompanied by changing exhibitions on art and social history in the Margaret Whitlam Galleries.

There is even a section where they have recreated what his original office, from the bookshelves and books, to the couch the desk, his chair and even phone – which was amazing.

It’s only open Wednesday’s and Thursday’s from 10am to 4pm. The while building is open for you to explore, along with a map of the campus grounds if you wish to explore furrier beyond the walls of the orphanage. If you do want a volunteer guide to take you through the building, you do have too pay. However, on quiet days and if you’re friendly enough they may just take you through for free (which is what happened to us – we were very lucky).

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