Monday, 31 December 2012

Parramatta Girls Home: history on fire

What I'm reading: Facebook for Dummies by Carolyn Abram; Bedtime Stories: tales from my 21 years at RN's Late Night Live by Phillip Adams; and Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (possibly the best Stones biography I've read).

At around 5am on 22 December, on Fleet Street in Parramatta, something dismaying happened - part of the heritage-listed building, most recently known in its long and somewhat shadowed history as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, was destroyed by fire.

Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre minus roof
You might be thinking - so what? It's just another old pile of bricks. Well, not really. It's a repository - of ghosts, memories, failed social experiments and, in this case, immense misery and fear. A lot of history is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't. In my opinion, we need to preserve these monuments to past mistakes, to remind us of where we've come from and, hopefully, who we no longer are. And to stand by and watch them just fall down or be otherwise obliterated is to totally deny the experiences of all those who passed through their doors.

The building has had several incarnations during its 168 years. It was originally purpose-built as a government orphanage for Catholic children, and opened in 1844 with 113 charges under the age of 13. Nearby in the same precinct in the grounds of the present Cumberland Hospital are the remains of the Parramatta Female Factory, the mean, dirty and overcrowded facility in which an estimated two thirds of convict women transported to New South Wales spent time.

Over the years the Roman Catholic Orphan School was extended until it could accommodate 250 children, though overcrowding still occurred and sanitation suffered. Social policy changed with the State Children Relief Act (1881) which disfavoured barrack-style institutions, the school was closed and the orphans turfed out in August 1886. It reopened the following year as the Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls, housing neglected or destitute girls (classed as 'perishing'), and those with criminal convictions (classed as dangerous), placed there by the child welfare authorities. Girls at risk of 'moral danger' were also admitted, ie. ones who went with boys, ran wild, or wagged school (compulsory after 1880). Ages ranged from nine (after 1946 this was raised to 12) up to 18. 

Parramatta wasn't the first industrial school in NSW. One had opened in disused military barracks in the Government Domain off Watt Street in Newcastle in 1867 - the Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory for Girls. But after inmates, apparently mostly Sydney girls, repeatedly rioted, used 'obscene language' and busted out, it closed in 1871 and the girls were transferred to a new facility - the Biloela Industrial and Reformatory School for Females - on Cockatoo Island in Sydney. In 1887, the Biloela girls were moved to the industrial school at Parramatta.

The Parramatta Industrial School for Girls is more commonly known as the Parramatta Girls Home, or the Parramatta Girls Training School. Life there, by most accounts, was hell. On arrival all girls were stripped and searched, and for a time intimately examined to assess whether they were sexually active - regardless of why they'd been admitted. How incredibly offensive, and irrelevant. They were issued with a number, a coverall as a uniform, and underpants but no bra - convict slops, basically. There were no lockers for personal belongings, no locks on showers or toilets and, judging by photos, a continuation of the earlier orphanage's barracks-style accommodation. Musters and body searches occurred daily, mail was censored, schooling absolutely minimal. Sexual, physical and psychological abuse were commonplace. Punishments were gruelling, and anti-psychotic and sedative medications used to restrain some girls.

Rooftop riot Parramatta Girls Home 1961
Photo courtesy
Riots were frequent, beginning in 1887, the last major event occurring in 1961. That year the Hay Girls Institution was established at Parramatta to administer to inmates 'additional discipline and training'. Prior to that, Parramatta girls over the age of 15 deemed troublemakers were routinely sent to Long Bay prison. During the 1960s the home became a focus for a ten year campaign by feminist activist Bessie Guthrie. In 1973, ABC aired a television program about the horrific conditions in the home and the Hay Girls Institute, resulting in the closure of both facilities the following year. However, there was already another facility waiting to receive the Parramatta girls - Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre, which had opened at Airds near Campbelltown in August 1973.

During its long history, Parramatta Girls Home accommodated around 30,000 girls, with an average of 160 in residence at any one time, peaking at 307 in 1970. Between 7 and 12% of those girls were of indigenous heritage.

In 1975 the old home was renamed Kamballa (Girls) and Taldree (Boys) Childrens Shelter. Taldree operated until 1980, and Kamballa until 1983. In 1980, the Department of Corrective Services took over the original Catholic orphanage buildings and established the Norma Parker Correctional Centre for Women, a small, low security prison. It closed in 1997, reopened as the Norma Parker Periodic Detention Centre for Women, but had ceased operating again by 2010.

Some of the women who had been through the Parramatta Girls Home reunited for the first time in 2003. Sydney playwright Alana Valentine has written a very successful play, Parramatta Girls, based on their experiences, which premiered in 2007. On 16 November 2009 the Prime Minister apologised nationally to the 'Forgotten Australians' - all those children placed in orphanages, children's homes, foster care, and other forms of 'out-of-home' care during the 20th century.

Further information:

Comprehensive and very informative website dedicated to promoting the preservation of the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct

For information on creative contributions towards the PFF Memory Project, and the planned Public History Symposium later in 2013

Alana Valentine talks about 'Parramatta Girls'

Newcastle Industrial School (by Jane Ison)


  1. Wow what an interesting and mind-opening post. Appalling what these girls suffered. There would be a wealth of stories here waiting to be told. Thanks for sharing your knowledge Deb.

    1. I know, it must have been horrendous, and an experience that has shadowed them for life. Thanks for your comment.

  2. My mother was one of those girls.Bless her........

  3. interesting blog post.i like life of Parramatta Girls ..thanks for sharing
    child care parramatta

  4. I was so sorry to hear of this - we have so many closed up and empty buildings of historic interest and I'm sure many of them could raise funds by conducting small tours to spark peoples interest. If we wait for official photographers to document these landmarks much of the spirit will be lost. I would love to be able to get some shots of it as it is now, before any renovations are done. I visited the Orphan school yesterday and was really saddened to see how 'modern' it is - had images been shot of the building before restoration we at least would have some memories of the reality. For your interest the last two links to your books are not 'live' Susan

    1. Thanks for your comments, Pandora. I completely agree. Re. getting photos of the Female Factory Precinct, you can do a guided tour. See (not a live link)
      Thanks also for the heads up re. my unlive links.

  5. hi ,i was a parramatta girl in the 60,s so hard to forget those days glebe shelter was just as bad but not a thing has been spoken about that one.

    1. Hi Anonymous - thanks for your comment. You're right - no one seems to be saying much about Glebe. Online there's a wee bit about the Metropolitan Girl's Shelter, Glebe, next to Bidura, (aka Glebe Girls' Shelter, and Metropolitan Girls' Remand Centre, and Bidura Shelter for Girls). The text says in the 70s the shelter was targeted by the women's liberation movement for abuses against girls. See (not a live link)

  6. Hi My Mother was a cook at the Glebe Girls shelter, it's ironic that when she died my brother and I were sent to the Gill Home in Goulburn. After 4 years at the Gill Home a lady who was Deputy Matron[ at the Shelter] took me out of the Home. Both the Shelter and the Gill Home were terrible places, my book The Salvation Army's Shame will be published next year, regards Clem Apted.

  7. Hi Clem, thanks very much for your comments. You poor kids. What a life for children. I'll certainly look out for your book. Best of luck with it. Cheers, Deb.


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