Parramatta's neglected heritage - the Female Factory - Rusty Compass travel blog

Parramatta's neglected heritage - the Female Factory

| 13 Jan 2021
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13 Jan 2021

Parramatta was at the centre of the development of the British penal colony in New South Wales from its beginnings in 1788. It was also at the heart of the frontier wars that caused catastrophe for First Nations people as the British colony moved west and across the Blue Mountains. Right now, plans are evolving for the future of the Female Factory Precinct in North Parramatta. It's the largest, oldest female convict site in Australia. It's also a remarkable public asset that could transform Parramatta's long underperformance as a heritage tourism destination.

I've been visiting Parramatta in Sydney's western suburbs for a very long time. I grew up nearby in Auburn. Parramatta was the nearest major centre.

As a child growing up in the area, I had a vague sense that Parramatta was of some historical consequence. We visited Old Government House on a school excursion. We used it as a location in a school film. But that was it.

By the time I was an adult in the 1980s, Parramatta was a place of guitar shops, bars, nightclubs and a pool that I'd visit from time to time (since demolished).

The superb building and grounds of Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta. The old Macarthur family residence.
Photo: Mark Bowyer The superb building and grounds of Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta. The old Macarthur family residence.

 

Despite having some of the most compelling heritage tourism sites in Australia, the rich tourism opportunities of Sydney's second CBD have never been properly recognised or realised. Parramatta has never become a heritage tourism destination, like The Rocks or Port Arthur or Fremantle.

Why not?

A little over ten years ago, my brother's interest made me aware of Parramatta's heritage gems - and the neglect of Parramatta's heritage. I've been writing about heritage issues in Vietnam and Cambodia for over a decade. Now here in Australia, Parramatta seems to be the place of the most glaring unrealised heritage potential.

Sure, places like Old Government House and Elizabeth Farm, the old Macarthur residence, are well managed and presented.

Old Government House in Parramatta is the oldest public building in Australia
Photo: Mark Bowyer Old Government House in Parramatta is the oldest public building in Australia

 

But Parramatta lacks a unified focus as a heritage destination.

I sense this failing is at least in part because Parramatta's heritage sites are in Parramatta.

It's a city with an insatiable appetite for newer ever-taller property development. With all that money washing around, it's hard for heritage priorities to compete. Breathing spaces are lacking in the plans.

I suspect that anywhere else in Australia, Parramatta's heritage assets would be better looked after, better funded, better cultivated and would support a thriving tourism economy.

Parramatta's failure as a heritage destination looks like a national tragedy and a missed economic opportunity.

Right now Parramatta is at the centre of a property development boom of a scale way beyond anything that's previously occurred there. As the money floods in, it's a perfect time to address the city's long-neglected heritage tourism opportunities. Some good decisions could see the creation of a new Parramatta heritage tourism industry.

Here are two cases of heritage neglect in Parramatta that demonstrate the point.

St John's Cemetery Parramatta
Photo: Mark Bowyer St John's Cemetery Parramatta

 

St John's Cemetery is the oldest European Cemetery in Australia (1790), home to the oldest original grave (1791), resting place of more than 50 First Fleeters and other notable figures in the early penal colony (check out the video below). But it's neglected, and doesn't even have the most token signage and presentation, to match its obvious significance (the piece of paper hanging from the noticeboard doesn't count). It's no different to any abandoned cemetery anywhere in Australia. But this place is important. And most Australians know nothing of it.

The lost opportunity at the Female Factory precinct is more serious and more important. The Female Factory is the original New South Wales female prison from 1821, with many standing original structures (check out the video below).

Female Factory Parramatta - Australia's oldest and largest female convict ruins are left unknown.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Female Factory Parramatta - Australia's oldest and largest female convict ruins are left unknown.

 

According to historian Michaela Cameron, it's the largest and oldest female convict site in Australia. Yet it's neglected, undeveloped and mostly unknown. It is one of the most impressive heritage sites in Australia. With proper development, the large space, with many heritage structures, could become a transformational site for Parramatta.

In Hobart, a later, less significant Female Factory, with few structures on the site, is a UNSESCO World Heritage listed convict site and a major tourism destination in the city. This site should be too.

Parramatta's Female Factory should become the focus of a new effort to create a serious heritage tourism industry in Parramatta. The space is large enough to allow for a range of uses - a museum of women's history, event spaces, marketplaces and boutique retail - could all bring a spectacular Sydney asset to life as a tourism and a community destination. The nearby Parramatta Gaol could be incorporated.

Parramatta's new metro connects with the female factory site - securing its viability as a community and tourism asset.

An anchor heritage tourism and community development at The Female Factory and the nearby Parramatta Gaol would create a heritage momentum in Parramatta that would drive further visitation to sites like Old Government House and Elizabeth Farm, the old Macarthur family residence. It could transform Parramatta's tourism and leisure economy and enhance the Parramatta brand.

Parramatta's recent focus on the bungled Powerhouse Museum project and Willow Grove plans are a distraction from the big heritage scandal - the wasted opportunity at the Female Factory. It's an opportunity that's sitting and waiting.

Take yourself out to North Parramatta for a wander around a mostly unknown Sydney historical site. Even without any  heritage development, it's a remarkable place to explore. And it could and should be a remarkable heritage and community space.

You can read more about the Parramatta Female Factory on this website by historian Michaela Cameron.

 

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Australia, Sydney

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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