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Sydney’s forgotten girls

a tree in front of a house

The Female Orphan School was first set built in 1801 on the corner of George and Bridge streets in Sydney. This 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.

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 as the school was directly opposite the Convict Works Yard.

In 1813, a site was soon located in Rydalmere, situated on the Parramatta River. Construction began on a building modelled on Airds House, Elizabeth Macquarie’s family home in Scotland. The construction was quite slow. It took five years for the building to be completed for its new tenants, who moved in in 1818. Tt was not until 1823 that the institution was finally completed. The new Female Orphan School can lay claim to being the first three-story building in Australia. Access to the building was via the river and via a new road.

The Female Orphan School provided instruction for girls so that they could work as domestic servants. The school provided the potential to escape a life of poverty and vice which befell many working-class women in the early 19th century.

The school girls ages ranged between the ages of 3 and 13. But not all the girls sent there were in fact orphans. It was only around 20% who were without parents. Most girls who attended 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 separated along gender lines. This use continued until 1886 when the orphan school was closed – ‘boarding out’ again became the favored 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) This new 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. 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.

Whilst something of a hidden treasure, the building is considered to be of immense significance to Australia’s social history. It is one of the very few surviving public buildings of its size dating from the early colonial period.

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IMAGE CREDIT: Sally Tsoutas