Whitlam Institute

History of the Female Orphan School

History of the Female Orphan School

History of the Female Orphan School

The Female Orphan School building is a key witness to some of the most significant social changes in Australian history. The building has shaped thousands of lives over the two centuries it has stood on the banks of the Parramatta River.  

Whilst something of a hidden treasure, the building is of immense significance to Australia's social history. It is one of the very few surviving public buildings of its size dating from the early colonial period. Predating even Hyde Park Barracks, the Female Orphan School is the oldest three-storey building in the country.

The building stands on the traditional lands of the Darug people, the traditional owners of the Western Sydney area who maintain their deep connection to the land.

For most of its life, the building accommodated those who, for whatever reason, were left on the periphery of society. Its first function was to accommodate, educate and train Sydney's 'orphaned' children. After its life as an orphanage, it served as a psychiatric hospital and its changing use over the subsequent 100 years reflected society's evolving understanding of mental illness. By the mid 1980s, the philosophies the building embodied had become obsolete, and the building became disused and fell into disrepair. Recognising its heritage significance, the University of Western Sydney (now known as Western Sydney University) saw to the building's restoration in a series of projects beginning in 2000. The Female Orphan School has now been revivified as the centrepiece of the university's Parramatta campus.

The Whitlam Institute which now occupies the building is committed to ensuring that the building will be accessible as a truly open, public and democratic space for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

The Female Orphan School

1813 - 1850

The Female Orphan School was built as an expression of the colonial government's policy of providing care for young 'orphaned' girls. The vision for a Female Orphan School was primarily that of Phillip Gidley King, the third Governor of New South Wales and the Reverend Samuel Marsden. Governor King had previously established an orphan school on Norfolk Island and he opened a similar facility in Sydney Cove on August 17, 1801 – only 13 years after European settlement of Australia began. The orphan school replaced the 'boarding out' system instituted by Governor Arthur Phillip. The Sydney Cove building could accommodate up to 100 orphans, but planning soon began for a purpose-built structure in Parramatta to house the children. The orphanage in Sydney Cove was located next to a public works depot and it was feared that the girls' close proximity to workers there, and to other influences in Sydney town put them at risk of 'moral corruption.' The more remote Parramatta site was preferable because of its distance from these corrupting influences. One member of the committee managing the Orphan School wrote:

 "...the children are to be entirely secluded from the other people, and brought up in habits of religion and morality".

It was under the guidance of the new Governer Lachlan Macquarie that the new Female Orphan school was developed - a statement building that reflected Macquarie's new ideals for the colony.  Modelled on the childhood home of Elizabeth Macquarie, it was designed for maximum impact.  Of palladian style, it was the first three storey building in the colony.  The land had originally been granted to Thomas Arndell (a colonial surgeon) who had cultivated 18 acres and built some structures.  Bushfire had decimated his land and destroyed the buildings, so when King was seeking land to support the Orphan School, Arndell exchanged this parcel of 60acres for land on the Hawkesbury, thus Macquarie had a perfect site for his statement building – elevated land, already cultivated and producing, close to Parramatta (but not too close!) and good access from the river.  The elevation makes for a commanding position and it overlooked the land of Elizabeth Farm – an aspirational goal for the children attending the school and some say reflective of the rivalry between Macquarie and John Macarthur.

Construction on the building began in 1813 with Macquarie attending a ceremony for the turning of the soil.  Newspaper reports of the day state ‘His Excellency deposited in the vacuum prepared for the purpose, some of the silver coinage intended for circulation within the Colony. The site is an eminence on a bank of the River opposite Mrs. M'Arthur's Grounds, and is in all respects beautifully adapted to this benevolent purpose.’  The building was quickly constructed, but the internal fitout took considerably longer, partly due to issues with funding, and partly due to Rev. Marsden (who managed the build) insisting on no convict labour on site and being shipwrecked in NZ for a period of time.  The first group of girls arrived at the school in 1818 and their Sydney home became the boys orphan school until a new site was developed for boys at Cabramatta in 1823.  

The involvement of the state in social welfare was very limited in Britain during this time, so the fact that the government accepted responsibility for the care of these children was a significant development. The Female Orphan School was indeed the first welfare institution to be established in New South Wales.

The guiding mission of the institution was to train 'orphaned' girls with the skills they would need to work as domestic servants and escape the life of poverty, idleness, immorality and prostitution that it was thought would otherwise befall them. Whilst it was called the 'Female Orphan School', many of the girls did in fact have parents.

Governor King saw the purpose of the institution as the protection of the next generation of Australians:

"Finding the greater part of the children in this colony so much abandoned to every kind of wretchedness and vice, I perceived the absolute necessity of something being attempted to withdraw them from the vicious examples of their abandoned parents."

Its founders believed that educating these girls and training them with domestic skills would help create a more respectable working class and that the regimented routines and close monitoring that characterised the girls' lives at the school would produce obedient, productive workers for the growing colony. It was feared that unless the courses of these 'orphaned' girls' lives were corrected, the character of the future Australian society would be tainted. Reverend Samuel Marsden, who was responsible for the development of the school, put it this way:

"Remote, helpless, distressed and young, these are children of the State and though at present very low in the ranks of society, their future numerous progeny, if care is not taken of the parent stock, may by their preponderance over balance and root out the vile depravities bequeath'd by their vicious progenitors. Their numbers will in a very few years increase beyond that of the then existing convicts and what the character of this rising race shall be is therefore an extremely interesting thing."

The Protestant Orphan School

1850 - 1886

In 1836, Governor Bourke passed the Church Act which allowed the granting of some government funding to religious institutions. By the 1840s, the Male Orphan School had become dilapidated, despite performing a similar function to the Female Orphan School and housing about 135 boys during 1844. In late 1846, Governor Fitzroy decided to merge the Male Orphan School and the Female Orphan School because of the the remoteness of the Male Orphan School site at Cabramatta, and the inefficiency of supporting two similar, but separate institutions.

To accommodate the merger, renovations were performed on the Female Orphan School buildings and in April 1850, the boys transferred to the Female Orphan School. The merged Female Orphan School and Male Orphan Schools became known as the Protestant Orphan School. Dormitories were added to the west wing, and a new hospital facility was added to the north of the building. 77 boys and 82 girls were accommodated there in separate wings of the building. These numbers increased over time, and by 1867, 250 children were accommodated at the school. A stone path was created to link the new carriage loop that was constructed in front of the building to the jetty on the river. New trees were also planted around the building at this time.

Despite the merger of the Male and Female Orphan Schools into one institution, a strict separation of boys and girls was maintained. Segregation between the boys and girls was ensured and interaction was minimised by designating separate classrooms and bathrooms. Even their playgrounds were separated by sandstone walls and timber fences. The building's west wing was where boys had their dormitories and dining room. The East Wing housed the girls' dormitories and dining room, as well as the nursery. A reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1866 that:

"The girls and boys are kept quite apart. They are separately lodge, separately taught, and have separate playgrounds. Their clothing is plain but substantial and neat, and appears to be kept in excellent order – no doubt a very difficult and troublesome business. The food of the children, like their clothing, is plain but substantial. They have soup on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and baked meats on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays…The bread, which is all baked on the establishment, there being five bakings in each week, is excellent".

In 1851, the building included a total of 13 dormitories and sleeping apartments, 3 kitchens, 2 mess rooms, 3 staircases a hospital, teachers apartments, school rooms and a committee room. Activities were provided for the children. Children could read or play draughts in the recreation room, and an annual picnic was held. In 1880, all the children were taken by schooner boat to Chowder Bay. It has been recorded that Matron Martha Betts arranged fireworks for the children to celebrate the Queen's birthday each year. By the mid-1860s, the Protestant Orphan School was in a state of disrepair, with collapsing ceilings and deteriorating floors. Repainting and replastering was also necessary, and major renovation and extension works were carried out in 1870 to improve the living conditions at the School. Over time, boys came to outnumber girls at the Protestant Orphan School.

Throughout the 1880s, a new 'boarding out' system for managing orphans was increasingly favoured by the colonial government. The policy, which had already been implemented in Victoria and South Australia, saw orphans sent to 'respectable' families in regional areas. Financial incentives were offered to families to house, educate and care for the children. It was thought that the cleaner air, greater variety of diet, and reduced exposure to communicable diseases would see orphans fare better than in institutions such as the Protestant Orphan School. It was also favoured because it meant that orphaned children were no longer accommodated en masse in large centralised institutions. This approached was advocated by Sir Henry Parkes who introduced the State Children Relief Act to the New South Wales Parliament in 1882. Within the first 5 years of its operation, the system saw 1,366 children 'boarded out'. This policy shift meant that the Protestant Orphan School and institutions like it became redundant. The Protestant Orphan School ceased operating on September 30, 1886. By that point it was housing only 65 children.

Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital

1888 - 1980s

Up until 1811, ‘lunatics’ were accommodated at the old Parramatta gaol with male prisoners and female convicts, but over subsequent decades, dedicated asylums were established at Castle Hill, Tarban Creek (Gladesville), Parramatta, Callan Park, Kenmore and Goulburn. By the turn of the century, the number of people in New South Wales deemed to be ‘insane’ outstripped the number of places in institutions to accommodate them. The Inspector-General of the Insane, Norton Manning attributed this to the economic depression affecting Australian society at the time. After the closure of the Protestant Orphan School in 1886, the building and the site it stood on were transferred to the Department of Lunacy so that a new branch of the Parramatta Hospital could be established there in 1888. By the end of 1890, 120 male patients were accommodated in the building and two years later it became an independent facility. 

Facilities like Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital were established with the intention of not just accommodating, but segregating people who had some form of mental illness, out of concern for the character of the population as a whole. Many psychiatrists practicing at the time of the establishment of the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital believed in the theory of eugenics, and saw the isolation of the mentally ill in such facilities as an important way of ensuring that ‘mental defectiveness’ was not passed on to subsequent generations. 

The original Female Orphan School building underwent extensions and renovations in order to house the patients of the hospital – the east and west wings were further extended to provide accommodation, and the verandas of the building were enclosed. Particular emphasis was placed on the natural environment around the building in the belief that this would assist in the recovery of patients. The land around the building was landscaped extensively – in 1893 the Royal Botanic Gardens sent 275 trees and 120 shrubs to improve the gardens on the site. 

Early patients had to periodically move to different parts of the building, while urgent repair and alteration works were conducted. As the facility grew, more ward space was needed, so the central block of the building was extensively remodelled. In 1905 for example, a stairwell was built at the back of the building, so that the main stairway could be removed and more wards installed in its place. Progressive improvements were made to the building over the subsequent decades, with electricity installed for the first time after the First World War. In 1931, the eastern pavilion was extended with a two storey addition in order to provide additional recreation and dormitory space. 

No longer alone on its hilltop, the original Female Orphan School building became part of a large campus of wards, medical facilities, and support buildings that made up the psychiatric hospital. The hospital complex gradually advanced northward towards Victoria Road and a new entrance road linking the hospital to Victoria Road was constructed on the north-western corner of the site. This meant that the orientation of the complex turned northward, and the former Female Orphan School precinct became the ‘back’ of the site. By the 1920s, the site was no longer set amidst a rural landscape – it was gradually becoming surrounded by a developing residential district. The Rydalmere and Ermington Council saw the hospital as an impediment to the prosperity of the area, because potential residents would be reluctant to buy houses close to a psychiatric facility. The council argued that the hospital should be moved to a more isolated location, distant from residential areas.

The facility was known over its life as the Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane, the Rydalmere Mental Hospital and the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital.

Dereliction and Restoration

1980s - Present

The Female Orphan School building was unused for the last twenty years of the existence of the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital. Over this period, the building suffered significant deterioration and vandalism.

Some measures were undertaken to prevent its degradation. In 1976, the Federal Government’s National Estate Program spent $60,000 sealing the building’s roof to prevent water damage. Its windows were boarded up, and it was protected with barbed wire. The Department of Public works conducted emergency repairs to the building between 1988 and 1991 to stall its decline. Whilst the building remained basically structurally sound, its brickwork and stonework deteriorated. Internally, the building’s plastered walls broke up and were vandalised with graffiti, water damage occurred and its floors rotted.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that during this period, the building was occasionally inhabited by squatters who were former patients of the hospital, who also lived under the railway bridge across the Parramatta River.

With the closure of the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital in 1989, the campus of buildings on the site was vacated and left unused for several years. In 1993 however, the University of Western Sydney approached the New South Wales Government with a proposal to redevelop the site as its new Parramatta campus. The land was transferred to the university in 1995, and the restoration of a number of the buildings on the site allowed teaching to begin at the site in early 1998. The University of Western Sydney recognised the heritage significance of the Female Orphan School building from the outset and a condition of the University of Western Sydney’s acquisition of the land was that the building be restored. Because of the fragile nature of the building’s heritage elements, the University was advised not to use the building for purposes that would bring high levels of traffic, so the building was not used for teaching space.

The restoration of the building began in 2000, made possible by a grant of $1 million from the Heritage Council of New South Wales. The University of Western Sydney also invested significant funds in the project. The Stage 1 restoration project rehabilitated the Central wing of the building. The work required extensive research, and delicate treatment of the building’s fragile heritage elements. During this project, the building’s stone and brick exterior was restored, much of its flooring was reconstructed, and the central stairwell that had been removed in 1905 was recreated. Some of the more recent and unsympathetic additions to the exterior of the building were removed, and the verandas that ran along the building’s northern façade were reconstructed.

Stage 2 of the building's restoration was made possible by a grant of around $1 million from the Federal Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts to the University in late 2009 and again, the University itself contributed a significant funding the restoration project. This work concentrated on the West wing of the building, and was carried out with an approach that was respectful of the building’s heritage fabric, with the building’s internal layout largely preserved. This second stage of the restoration was completed in 2011. The Margaret Whitlam Galleries were established in this wing and are now used to present art exhibitions as well as exhibitions related to Australia’s social and political history. The ground floor of this wing is now used for seminars, concerts, large meetings, and other events.

Stage 3 of the building’s restoration was made possible by a grant of $7 million from the Federal Government in 2012. As part of this project, the last remaining derelict section – the East Wing – was fully restored. Further work was also completed on the Central and West Wings to enhance their amenity. The north and south precincts of the building were landscaped, including the carriage circle in front of the building, which was restored to its pre-20th century appearance with precise attention to detail. 

Similarly to the Central and West wing restoration projects, the building’s existing internal layout was preserved, and the heritage fabric of its walls and floors were kept as intact as possible. Like the earlier two stages of the building’s restoration, the work included the introduction of disabled access, new air-conditioning and communication services, as well as other modern amenities. The walkway atop the two linking passageways was roofed to allow a covered passageway to link the three wings on the first floor.

This work involved the removal of lead and asbestos, as well as enough pigeon droppings to fill two skip bins. 

On 24 September, 2013, the Governor-General, Her Excellency the Honourable Ms Quentin Bryce AC, officially reopened the Female Orphan School building after the completion of the third and final stage of its restoration. The event took place 200 years to the day since the building's foundation stone was laid by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.


Want to learn more about the Female Orphan School?

Visit us or book a tour and explore Australia's oldest three-storey building.