The Female Orphan School was first set up in 1801 on the corner of George and Bridge streets in Sydney. Its establishment was driven by the zeal of Reverend Samuel Marsden, who wanted to replace the informal boarding out system to deal with orphaned and abandoned children in the colony. Marsden’s family would go on to be associated with running the Female Orphan School for over 80 years.

Female orphan School, Parramatta, 1870-1875 / photographer American & Australasian Photographic Company (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. a5408001, Call No. SPF / 2661)
Female orphan School, Parramatta, 1870-1875 / photographer American & Australasian Photographic Company (State Library of NSW,
Digital Order No. a5408001, Call No. SPF / 2661)

Within a few years, a decision was made to move the Female Orphan School to a more isolated location, away from the corrupting influences of Colonial Sydney – the orphan school was directly opposite the Convict Lumber Yard.

In 1813, a site was selected at Rydalmere on the Parramatta River and construction began on a building modelled on Airds House, Elizabeth Macquarie’s family home in Scotland. Work to build the institution was slow going – it took five years for the building to be ready for its new occupants, who moved in in 1818, and it wasn’t until 1823 that the institution was finally completed. The new Female Orphan School was a landmark building on the Parramatta River – and it can lay claim to being the first three-storey building in Australia. Access to it was via the river and via a new road.

The Female Orphan School provided training for girls so that they could become domestic servants – it was hoped by giving them an occupation, they had the potential to escape a life of poverty and vice, thought to the lot of working class women in the early 19th century.

The school accepted girls between the ages of 3 and 13. But not all the girls sent there were orphans – only around 20% were orphaned. Most were had one parent living, usually a single mother ‘living in poverty’. In 1850, the school changed its name, becoming the Protestant Orphan School, and accepted boys as well as girls. The institution was segregated along gender lines. This use continued until 1886 when the orphan school was closed -‘boarding out’ again became the favoured way to deal with children in care at this time.

In 1888, the former Female Orphan School became the Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane (later known as the Rydalmere Mental Hospital) – the hospital occupied the former orphan school building and extensive landscaped grounds, but also oversaw construction of a range of new purpose-built hospital buildings. The use of this site as a psychiatric hospital continued for 100 years, although the former orphan school building was closed in 1969 because it was run down. Rydalmere Hospital closed in 1989 and quickly fell into disrepair until the site was taken over by the University of Sydney in the mid-1990s. Conservation works have been carried out on the former Female Orphan School since 2000. The most recent works have been to the East Wing which has recently been opened as the Whitlam Institute.

Further reading : www.uws.edu.au/femaleorphanschool

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