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excerpts from Carol Liston’s article highlighting the influence of place on The Female Orphan School

Liston, C. ‘The Female Orphan School Parramatta, Locality, Centre for Community History UNSW, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1999

In 1800 Governor King established a Female Orphan School to provide shelter for orphaned and abandoned children. He secured William Kent's house in Sydney as accommodation; established a regular income for it by way of port duties and provided for its long-term needs with a secular equivalent of the glebe – land reserves to support livestock from which the institution could earn an income. The largest land holding was in Western Sydney – I2 000 acres (50 square miles) between Eastern Creek and Ropes Creek at modem Bonnyrigg. Smaller allocations were at Grose Farm (hence Orphan School Creek which runs through Camperdown) and at Parramatta. Surgeon Arndell had received a 60-acre grant on the northern bank of the Parramatta River in 1792. He willingly swapped his farm, Arthur's Hill, for more fertile acres at the Hawkesbury.

Arndell's grant was an elevated location, with views south and westward to the river and across farms to the township of Parramatta and northward to the timbered Hills district. The river was the colony's main highway and traffic between Sydney, Parramatta and beyond passed by its slopes. Inevitably this commanding position attracted the notice of Governor Macquarie. The Sydney orphanage was overcrowded and the Parramatta land was an impressive location for a new building. The colony's first purpose built charitable building would crown its hillside.

In 1810 Macquarie had reduced the orphanage's income from import duties and customs to one-quarter of the customs revenue and extended the fund to all orphan and charity schools throughout the colony. To ensure that the customs revenue would be sufficient for these purposes, Macquarie increased the import duties on alcoholic spirits and raised the fees for publicans' licences. Nevertheless, it was a generous source of funding so it is not surprising that a building on a grand scale was erected.

Macquarie laid the foundation stone for the new Female Orphan School in 1813. The inscription on the pediment of the main building read: Female Orphan Institution erected under the Superintendence of the Rev. S. Marsden 1814 L. Macquarie Governor. Its design was an adaptation of Elizabeth Macquarie's family home 'Airds', in Appin, Scotland. Built of brick, the main building was three stories high, linked by corridors to two side wings each of two stories. Its Palladian style was the first of its kind to be erected in Australia.

The pupils arrived in 1818 and by 1829 there were 152 girls in a building designed for 100. Many of the children had one parent living. They came from all sections of colonial society – the children of convicts, children orphaned during the long voyage to Australia and Aboriginal children referred to the orphanage by colonial clergymen and magistrates. Originally girls were accepted from the age of five but almost immediately this was lowered to two. Girls received a basic education and were to be apprenticed as domestic servants at thirteen.

Parramatta from Macquarie's time was defined, physically, economically and socially, by its large government institutions – the Female Factory for women convicts, the Male Convict Barracks and lumber yard, the Female Orphan School, the gaol, the military garrison and commissariat, the hospital and the Native Institution. From the 1840s the convict institutions became health and welfare institutions homes for the insane, the destitute, the elderly, the young (with the addition of another orphanage, the Roman Catholic Orphan School) and the infectious (the male convict barracks in the centre of the town becoming an erysipelas hospital). These buildings provided regular construction and maintenance work; they attracted a constant flow of people, as inmates or visitors, who had to be fed and clothed and provided work for constables, overseers and attendants, butchers, bakers and firewood contractors.

The Female Orphan School was a visible landmark on the hillside east of Parramatta. Visitors who travelled by road to the town caught sight of it as they broached the hill from the Sydney Road to the Great Western Road. Ahead lay the sandstone of the Female Factory and to the east the red brick of the Female Orphan School with the town in the valley between. Links between the Female Orphan School and the town were strong. Families found servants from among the girls and some Parramatta men found their wives there, too. Colonial born builder Nathaniel Payten married Susannah Humphrey from the Female Orphan School in 1821. Elizabeth Macarthur employed girls from the school and reminisced of their success as they married, had families, lived nearby and worked for her…

At a practical day to day level, a Matron and her husband, the Master, ran the Female Orphan School. The first matron, Mrs John Hosking, resigned a year after the move to Parramatta. Her successor in 1820-21 was Mary Collicott, mother of Sydney solicitor George Allen. Susannah Matilda Ward and Sarah Sweetman followed her, the later dying shortly after taking up the position. In 1825-26 the Wesleyan missionary, William Walker and his wife, Cordelia nee Hassall, were controversial appointments as Walker had left the Blacktown Aboriginal settlement without the permission of his Wesleyan colleagues. They brought some of the Aboriginal children with them to Parramatta, as Governor Brisbane was anxious ‘to try the experiment of the white and black Natives of this Colony imbibing their earliest intellectual and religious ideas under a common roof.’ The Walkers resigned their positions because of the ‘general ungentlemanly and uncharitable conduct’ of Archdeacon Scott who was the official Visitor of colonial schools. Scott, at the time, lived across the river from the orphanage in Hambledon Cottage from where, it was alleged, he used a telescope to spy on them.

The next appointment, the Reverend Charles Pleydell Neale Wilton and his wife arrived from England in mid 1827 and were installed at Parramatta. Pleading ill health, Mrs Wilton preferred to live in Sydney. Scott doubted Mrs Wilton's ill health, noting that she enjoyed an active social life. From the time of her arrival she had not taken the slightest interest in the school. She repeatedly declared to me she could not 'bear the smell of the Children or the house' and would not nor does not reside in it.'

Despite evidence that Wilton was spending Orphan School funds without approval, and giving less than two hours a day to teaching the girls, Archdeacon Scott found it difficult to dismiss him. A paper war waged throughout 1829 and 1830. Archdeacon Broughton resolved the problem in 1831 by appointing Wilton as assistant to the aging Reverend Samuel Marsden at Parramatta. Order was restored with the appointment by Captain Alexander Martin, RN and his wife to manage the Female Orphan School.

Most of the orphan girls were the children of convict women and these origins coloured first impressions of the school. The Reverend Richard Taylor observed in 1836: 'I admired the institution and the neatness which everything presented but I could not help noticing the ill favoured looks of the children who seemed to have all the crimes of their parents depicted on their countenances.' Nevertheless he was pleased with his examination of sixteen girls for confirmation and the following year took an eleven year old girl, Catherine Hassack, as an apprenticed servant to work for him for seven years.

Governor Macquarie wrote the regulations for the management of the Female Orphan School. Its proximity to the town suggested that the girls would regularly visit Parramatta. He designed their uniform – blue dresses with white pinafores and straw bonnets – and instructed that the girls attend a weekly church service at St Johns.

Undoubtedly, the girls en masse were an impressive sight when they attended church but it was probably a rare one. Proximity of town and orphanage meant one thing for adults in carriages and on horse back, but quite another for young children on foot who had to be escorted to and from the town by orphanage staff. The completion of All Saints Church in 1847 provided a closer alternative. The matron was willing to allow Presbyterian girls to attend their own church – but only if the clergyman collected the children in a carriage and drove them to church and back to the orphan school. Subdivision and fencing of the lands on the northern bank of the river removed traditional short cuts and forced the children to walk three miles into Parramatta via the roads by the 1870s.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Carol Liston.


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