Whitlam Institute

Culture & Heritage at the Female Orphan School

Culture & Heritage at the Female Orphan School


The oldest three-storey structure in Australia, the Female Orphan School was built in 1813 to shelter the colony's young girls from the depravity of Sydney Town. The site went on to become the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital before being left abandoned. Derelict and covered in graffiti, the building's future was in question before work began in 2000 to restore it to it's former grandeur and to create a home for the Whitlam Institute. 

Admission is free for individual visitors. Please enquire about our modest fees for guided group tours.

The Female Orphan School is open to the public every Thursday & Friday, 10am – 4pm, and the second Saturday of each month, 11am – 4pm, excluding long weekends and public holidays.  More information on getting here →


What's On

Explore current and upcoming exhibitions at the Female Orphan School and Margaret Whitlam Galleries.
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The Female Orphan School building has witnessed some of the most significant social changes in Australian history, shaping thousands of lives over the two centuries it has stood on the Parramatta River. 
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Get the inside story on some of this building's remarkable secrets with our talented tour guides.
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Macquarie and Whitlam: visionary leaders brought together by the Female Orphan School

The Female Orphan School was a project of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, and with the Whitlam Institute now calling this building home the striking similarities and visionary leadership of Macquarie and Whitlam are brought together.

Macquarie and Whitlam both came from fairly ordinary beginnings to become men of great vision, social engineers, people who changed Australia.  They were both military men for parts of their lives, both had wives who influenced their decisions in many ways, while being strong independent women in their own rights (within the context of society at the time) and both were flawed leaders who struggled with diplomacy, maintaining relationships with other powerful men and both had arguments with those representing their Regent.   

Both men approached their leadership with a clear and strong set of aims, both were considered progressive for their time. Macquarie had a huge program of development and expansion works for the colony – the hospital, multiple barracks and watch houses, roads, bridges, public buildings and warehouses.  More than 261 building projects were commenced during his time as governor and most of them were for the purpose of establishing proper order and administration in the colony, the morals, marriage and education of the colony were the key parts of his orders and Macquarie took to them with zeal.  Macquarie was of a more liberal bent than might be expected for one of his time and rank.  He was a known emancipist and it is these policies and Macquarie’s approach to them that made problems for his continuing governance.  He clashed with Reverend Samuel Marsden and Jeffery Hart Bent (judge of supreme court), calling Marsden a ‘secret enemy’ and having the Bent brothers recalled to England.  On his return to England, Bent (with others) mounted a campaign against Macquarie which led to the appointment of Bigge as commissioner for the enquiry that eventually led to questions over Macquarie’s management of the colony and damaged his reputation on his return home. 


Volunteer at the Female Orphan School

The Western Sydney University and the Whitlam Institute envisages the Female Orphan School building as a truly democratic space for the whole community to enjoy. The University and the Whitlam Institute wants to share the building's rich heritage. To do this, we are always looking for enthusiastic volunteers to get involved with the Friends of the Female Orphan School program, and assist with the building's activities throughout the year.  More →


Whitlam, like Macquarie, firmly believed in the structures of power and did not seem to countenance that others might work outside of that system and the traditions set down.  For all that Whitlam pushed Australia to new ideas, new systems and new acceptances and his government agenda set new standards, it was all done within the absolute guidelines of the system.  He worked by the book, and ultimately his dismissal was by the book as well.  

While Macquarie was able to choose his own departure from public life (although he did apply to resign three times before it was accepted), he, like Whitlam had to fight hard to salvage his reputation after his departure.  Macquarie’s legacy is often thought of in terms of physical buildings, but there is also a considerable legacy of policy and record keeping from colonial Australia that we owe to him.  Whitlam’s legacy is usually talked about in terms of the social structures and policy changes – women’s rights, free higher education, free medical access for all; but like Macquarie the physical legacy of Whitlam’s terms has shaped our cities, sewerage, roads, childcare and health centres.  

Both men have left a strong mark on the physical and social landscape of Australia.  The terms of their leadership were quite different, but their failings were similar.  Their record of achievement is undeniable and their place in history secure.