The ‘Female Factory Precinct’ in Parramatta is a cluster of sandstone and brick buildings along the banks of the Parramatta River. The earliest buildings here date from 1821, and have been associated with the control and punishment of girls and women since this time. There are two distinct groupings of buildings here, sited next to each other, which have separate but connected histories.

Parramatta Female Factory (1821-47) was established in 1821, replacing an earlier ‘factory’ at within the confines of Parramatta’s first gaol. The new factory was bounded by Fleet Street and the river. It was purpose-built to a design by Francis Greenway, the first Civic Architect in NSW.

The Female Factory was where unassigned female convicts and children were sent on arrival to Sydney. It contained a factory, workhouse and a penitentiary. Up to 3000 women passed through its doors each year. They were set to work spinning, sewing, weaving and rope making, most famously producing ‘Parramatta Cloth’. In 1827, the women held here led Australia’s first industrial action in response to the overcrowded conditions and lousy food.

Parramatta Female Factory closed in 1847, following the end of the transportation to NSW. The buildings were converted for use as a mental hospital; this medical use continues today as the Cumberland Hospital.

In 1887, a nearby complex of buildings, which had been used by the Roman Catholic Orphan School, were turned over for use as a Girls Industrial School, later known as the Parramatta Girls Home. A replacement for Biloela on Cockatoo Island, it housed girls between the ages of 6 and 18 which were deemed as neglected, delinquent, juvenile offenders, truants, or in moral danger. In the 1930s, it was reported that the aim of the institution was to ‘provide character training and to secure the mental, moral, physical and vocational improvement of the inmate’ and ‘to equip a girl to the take her place in the community as a clean, right-minded, hardworking and respectable women’.

Visit by Mrs May to Parramatta Girl's Home in 1939

Those who were sent here included state wards, Aboriginal girls taken from their families, orphans, girls who were regarded as neglected or abandoned, and those who had committed crimes such as murder or robbery.

This mixed population was an enduring problem for the administration of the Parramatta Girls Home, although some attempts were made to classify and separate the population with the provision of a training school separate to the reformatory.

By the early 1970s, there was growing concern about the harsh conditions and appalling treatment of the girls held here. In 1973, women liberationists stormed the buildings in protest about the state-sanctioned incarceration of girls and young women. Parramatta Girls Home was closed down the following year. It was reclassified as a juvenile justice centre and renamed as Kamballa. Today, the former girl’s home is a women’s prison, known as the Norma Parker Detention Centre.

The play Parramatta Girls, written by Alana Valentine and based on oral history testimony of women who spent time at the Parramatta Girls Home, is on at the New Theatre in Newtown from 18 May through to the 11 June 2011.