Parramatta Female Factory – Fleet Street


Over half of female factory women experienced the Parramatta Female Factories and the first purpose built factory (which still survives) was commissioned by Governor Macquarie and designed by Francis Greenway for 250-300 women and by 1842 there were 1,200 women and over 200 children. The first stone was laid in 1818 by Governor Macquarie and the women moved in during 1821. The factory closed in 1848. Even in this factory life changed over time, as it operation spanned 26 years. There were three building phases – the original 1818 Greenway design, in the 1820s an addition of a third class yard and working areas and, in the late 1830s, an addition of 3 storeys of solitary cells and courtyard.

Parramatta Female Factory by Augustus Earle c1826 National LIbrary of Australia Collection


All loss of freedom is difficult but this was dislocation from everything that was familiar except the British bureaucracies and class system.

The life in the factory varied according to the period of time the convict woman was in the factory. The influences of the different governors impacted on the experiences. The nature of the staff also had an effect. At times there was significant corruption and unrest. Five riots are evidence of this.

The Parramatta Female Factory was multi-purpose:

  1.  There was a hospital, which could claim the first dedicated female health service in Australia.
  2.   Assignment bureau – the factory provided a service for assignment throughout the colony

  3.   Marriage agreements. Women were selected and given the opportunity for marriage. A man would apply to the factory and well behaved first class women were selected. Both the man and the prospective ‘bride’ had to agree.

  4.   Accommodation for convict women waiting for                       assignment. Those convict women not selected for service on arrival of their ship, were sent to the female factory

  5.   There was also a prison aspect for women who committed a         crime in the colony.

The female factory was a huge concern. Its buildings were prominent in the landscape. Three stories high with a surrounding wall in a context of convict huts and some other government buildings, mostly two story, such as the military barracks. Supplies to service the factory were considerable. Provision of food and raw materials for manufacture were a part of the daily landscape.

The hospital was serving the needs of the convict women and others. Those seeking workers for their land grants and businesses were common. There were those looking for a wife in a colony where there were more men than women. Processing those who had been sentenced for secondary crime would also have been a part of the daily activities. There was also the ‘inside culture’ of the factory which was witnessed by staff,

One insight into the factory women’s lives comes from a staff dispute at Parramatta between John Clapham and Matron Leach. Some of Clapham’s complaints were: receiving extra food rations; picking mushrooms; reading the Sydney gazette aloud;letters asking for contraband tea, sugar, tobacco, pipes, women making things not factory related –  ladies shoes and  lace. He noted the  monitor of the second class put her arms around a man’s neck and kiss him several times in the presence of her turnkey …the man had come to sweep the chimneys;.

Factory Staff

Staff included Samuel Marsden, George Mealmaker, Francis Oakes , William Tuckwell, Elizabeth Falloon, Matron Anne Gordon. Matron Leach and John Clapham (these last two who were staff members recommended by Elisabeth Fry.  There were also sub-matrons, turnkeys, clerks, master weavers, porters and roles relating to the maintenance of the establishment and the manufacturing.

Marsden was the head of committees for the first and second Parramatta factories. He disliked the women but is to be acknowledged for his advocacy for better factory conditions through his association with Quaker, Elizabeth Fry.

George Mealmaker was a master weaver convicted for sedition (writing pamphlets for the Scottish martyrs) and, when the Colonial appointed master weaver fell overboard on the way out, he was employed as Parramatta’s first factory superintendent. One can’t help but wonder how this idealist worked, governing the factory women whose rights he fought for in Britain.

Anne Gordon was matron of the second Parramatta female factory for 9 years, the highest paid female public servant in the Colony and received possibly the first retrenchment package (because of her husband’s inappropriate behaviour towards the factory women). She was also the catalyst for the first of 5 known factory riots.

Francis Oakes was a Parramatta police superintendent, local businessman and 3rd Factory superintendent. Oakes daughter, Mary was brought up around the Parramatta Female Factory. She married John Hutchinson, superintendent of Cascades Female Factory and became the matron of the Cascades and later Launceston Female Factories.

Others were also involved in the factory such as followers of Elizabeth Fry like Charlotte Anley and the Sisters of Charity who came to the Colony specifically to work with the female factory women. Sister Xavier Williams in particular was appreciated by the factory women and they made her an appliqué from factory cloth to celebrate communion at the factory.


It was open to both factory women and free women. 30 categories of illness were listed in the second half of 1827. Some common ailments were fever, pneumonia, dysentery, cholera, convulsions and asthma.

Class system

In the first Parramatta factory there were no classes. The first distinction was made in 1821. By the 1830s the factory was split into 3 classes with the intent to better control the women. 1st class was mainly for women waiting for or returned from assignment. 2nd class consisted of women who committed minor offences in the colony.  The 3rd class was for offences such as prostitution, pregnancy, bodily harm or theft of property with high value. Second class women who were frequently insolent could also be demoted to 3rd class.

The classes were separated within the factory. They ate, slept and worked separately.


Early years in the second factory in all classes the women could keep their children until they were 3 years old or weened, at which time they were forcibly removed  ‘from the corrupting influence of the mothers’ and sent to orphanages. At Parramatta the girls went to the Female Orphan School and the boys to Cabramatta. Some women never saw their children again. Also if the women were sent on assignment from the factory they may not be able to take their children with them. It was at the discretion of the master. As transportation increased in the 1830s and 1840s children stayed longer with their mothers, sometimes up to the age of 9. By 1842 nearly 200 children were recorded at the factory.


The women were involved in a wider a range of work: spinning, straw plaiting, factory duties (housekeeping and working in the hospital), sewing, laundry and weaving in the 1830s and 1840s. The third class also broke rocks and picked oakum.

The weekly returns detail the work done. A weekly return by Matron Anne Gordon In 1831 described the women’s work as:  monitresses, laundresses, needle women, wool pickers, carders, spinners, winders, weavers, servants, flax spinners, portresses, straw plaiters and cloth sewers.


The women were sent to all parts of the colony on assignment. The experience varied according to the master or mistress involved. For some women the factory was a better alternative than assignment where much more was subject to the whims and character of the master and mistress. At the factory was a guarantee of regular food, clothing and familiar work in familiar surroundings. This does not suggest that life was always easy in the factory. For example William Tuckwell reported issues with food rations in 1826. The record of the rations was not verifiable and the women did not appear to be getting enough to eat. The Matron Elizabeth Falloon and her husband were implicated. This came to a head with the death of a prisoner, Mary Ann Hamilton. The findings were that she died of hunger and hard treatment.

The range of assignment work was related directly to the people they were assigned to. Mostly it was domestic service, agricultural labour duties or assistance with business activities such as Inn work.


Common offences for convict women sent to the female factories were: absconding, drunk and disorderly, continued drunkenness, pregnancy while on assignment, prostitution or serious crimes such as theft or bodily harm. by far the most common was absconding.


Punishments in the factory ranged from 14 days to a number of years.  Originally time in solitary was in paired solitary cells and later in the Governor Gipps commissioned cells in the 1830s courtyard addition.

Abstracts of punishments at the female factory showed that bread and water and class demotions were the most common ones. There was also a cap of disgrace and there is a record of one woman being chained to wood.

The feared punishment was head shaving which had its origins in British prisons (Millbank quote) A warder at Millbank (a British prison) noted convict women’s responses before transportation: ‘Oh yes they would sooner lose their lives than their hair.’


For rioting the women were punished locally and then sent to Newcastle and after Newcastle closed, Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay. There were 5 riots we know about at the factory – 1827, 1831, 1833, 1836 and 1843. The first one was described by Sydney papers.

A numerous party again assailed the gates, with pick axes, axes, iron crows …  and the inmates were quickly poured forth, thick as bees from a hive … About one hundred came into town…. Constables were seen running in all directions. A captain, a Lietenant, two serjents; and about forty rank and file… were seen flying in all directions with fixed bayonets,… and so violent were the Amazonian banditti, that nothing less was expected but that the soldiers would be obliged to commence firing on them…. [the convict women]Went along, carrying with them their aprons loaded with bread and meat…[i]

This riot is the earliest identified workers action in the Colony and therefore Australia.

This purpose built factory is a significant part of Australia’s heritage.

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[i] Author unknown Riot at the female Factory, Sydney Gazette 31October, 1827


Ordinary Women Extraordinary Lives