When Governor Macquarie laid the foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory in July 1818, little did he know how important its role would be to understanding the lives of female convicts 200 years later. It’s estimated that one in every five to seven Australians is related to a female convict who was incarcerated at the Factory. It’s an extraordinary statistic, one that shows its significance to our social history.
Yet the stories of these women – of bravery, rebellion, defiance and love – remain largely unknown to the general population. And their stories are fascinating. Transportee Julia Allen, for example, was charged by her Master with ‘preferring to stroll [Sydney’s] streets to scrubbing his sandstone floors’. Her reply in court? That her Master was ‘a dirty, disagreeable, detrimental, little devil; a foul-mouthed, evil-speaking, sanctified, cantankerous cockscomb’ and she’d be damned if she’d work for him. The outcome? Six weeks in the Factory for Miss Allen. Then there were the riots of 1827, when a group of some 40 women rebelled at the cutting of their tea, bread and sugar supplies. They rampaged through the streets in protest, chased by armed sergeants with orders to kill.
Designed by colonial architect Francis Greenway, the precinct was ‘home’ to some 5,000 convict women – around one fifth of the number of convict women transported to Australia. Throughout its 30-year use – it closed in 1848 – it was the first purpose-built factory and became multi-functional, acting as a workhouse, refuge, marriage bureau, hospital, asylum and prison.
This surprisingly peaceful site by the Parramatta River surely deserves a larger place in our collective historical narrative. For the past few years, action group Parramatta Female Factory Friends (PFFF) has been working hard to do just that, by protecting it for future generations. Headed by historian and curator Gay Hendriksen, the PFFF aims to ensure the protection of the site and have already achieved national heritage listing. Their ultimate goal is UNESCO World Heritage Site Status. And of course, to promote the stories of these courageous women who had all of society’s odds stacked against them.
What’s your convict story?
Tracing a convict’s life through the colony is a rewarding undertaking, and there are thousands of records at your disposal on Ancestry to help you add colour and context to their lives. Start with the Transportation Registers to find your ancestor: these cover convicts transported from 1788 to the end of transportation in 1868. The Muster Rolls are another rich source – the very early censuses for the colony, these records indicate where a convict was living, who they were working for and if they had been pardoned. If your convict behaved themselves, you may find them listed on the Certificates of Freedom register.
The Colonial Secretary’s Papers, 1788-1856, which are available for free on Ancestry and relate to matters about colonial administration, are another fabulous resource when researching a convict. Yes, they may sound a little dull, but these vital records add colour to life in the colony. For example, a search on the ‘Parramatta Female Factory’ reveals details about the conditions and sanctions the women faced at the Factory: from the rations approved from them and their children, to the clothing they wore.
Wherever your journey takes you on your search for your convict, discover more with Ancestry’s Australian Convict Collection.
Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.