Abuse, imprisonment, secret women’s business; Australia’s Parramatta Female Factory Precinct (PFFP) has a long, and often ugly, history. Once traditional land for Burramattagal women, since 1821 the area has been a place of female incarceration and confinement. Today, UTS:Shopfront is working with Parragirls to preserve the precinct’s history and turn it into an internationally recognised Site of Conscience.
Convicts, criminals, orphans, ‘welfare’ children and the mentally ill; over almost 200 years, more than 40 000 women and children have been confined to the institutions on the 48-odd acres of land wedged between Fleet Street and the Parramatta River.
In 1970, 15-year-old Bonney Djuric spent eight months locked inside the Parramatta Girls Home. Her ‘crime’? Poverty.
Djuric’s memories of the time are shadowed by anger and humiliation: “It was always driven home to us that our ‘female-ness’ was the source of our rottenness.
“There were no doors on toilets and showers, so there was no privacy. If you were in a dormitory you didn’t have a cabinet next to your bed for your things; you had no personal things at all. You weren’t allowed to speak freely. You had no choice; everything was directed by those in charge. Anything about being an individual was completely obliterated in the institution.”
Djuric, unlike many ‘Parragirls’ who continue to struggle with “limited literacy and a lot of emotional and psychological problems”, graduated from the Australian Catholic University a few years after starting a family. She went on to study at the National Art School, itself a former prison. The experience awoke her nightmarish memories of Parramatta.
Then, in 2000 following her sister’s death, Djuric became foster mother to her sister’s three children. “I began to wonder: ‘Why is our family, once again, having to turn to the welfare authorities for help?’”
As she delved into her own past, Djuric began to discover the layered history of the PFFP. Her first “astounding” discovery was that “the institution I was in had earlier been Australia’s first Catholic orphanage.
“The orphanage was established to accommodate children forcibly removed from their convict mothers in the adjacent Female Factory. I realised then that the state intervention which directly affected my life, and which also profoundly affected Aboriginal people, began in Parramatta. This site is the cradle of our welfare system.”
In 2003, Djuric founded Parragirls – a support group and contact register for former inmates – and began placing the information she had found online. “But having a website means you go public.
“I started getting emails from former inmates, descendants of convict women and descendants of kids who had been in the orphanage. So there was a whole new arm of inquiry, investigation and interest in the site.”
In 2007, Djuric contacted Shopfront to ask for help in compiling a history of the precinct. Within months, UTS communication/law student Clare Butler began researching the Female Factory and addressing the criteria Djuric would need to submit the site for national heritage listing in 2010.
Fast forward to 2013 and Shopfront and Parragirls have begun work on their fourth project – the ‘PFFP Memory Project: trace, place, identity’.
As part of this, public historian and Shopfront Academic Director Paul Ashton is working with Djuric and others on a program that will raise the profile of the site among other historians and politicians. Their first task is to organise a September symposium on stolen and lost generations of women and children.
“From that,” says Ashton, “we’re going to produce a special issue of Public History Review, which is published by UTSePress and the Australian Centre for Public History, and we’re also hoping to edit a book based on the proceedings of the conference.”
The purpose, says Ashton, is to “build up a body of work that supports the heritage values and significance of the site.
“For most large government agencies, they have hundreds of incredibly important heritage buildings that are very expensive to maintain, or to even work out what their significance is.”
Many, adds Ashton, “become demolished by neglect”. He, Djuric and Parragirls’ community of activists are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.
“In government, decision making is informed by the recommendations of experts,” explains Djuric. “And who are those experts? They’re the sorts of people who will be writing papers, participating in or attending public history conferences. So if we can get to them and inform them and engage them, then when it comes time for the government to ask their opinion, we’ve got them batting for us.”
Ashton adds, “There are some people in bureaucracy or in cultural institutions who say we shouldn’t shock the public, that people want nice stories. But they also want the truth.”
Djuric agrees. “Today we’re much more aware that things that went on behind closed doors, as is the case with the current inquiry into sexual abuse in institutions.
“It’s being dominated by allegations against religious groups, mainly the Catholic Church, but it’s not just the Catholic Church, it happened everywhere.” Allegations have also been levelled at state controlled institutions like Parramatta Girls Home.
“One way or another” Djuric hopes to know the outcome of her national heritage application by August this year. “Indications are it will be included, but that’s just the first step.
“Next is having it included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and that could take up to 10 years. An important part of the process is demonstrating how the site is being utilised today and that’s another reason why we launched the Memory Project,” adds Djuric.
The initiative, which could offer UTS students another opportunity to work with Parragirls later this year, encourages the public to engage with the site and artists, historians and former inmates to share their interpretations of it.
It’s all part of Djuric’s plan to one day see the precinct recognised as an international Site of Conscience. “The model is you take historic sites, sites where trauma and human suffering have occurred, and use these past struggles to address pressing human rights issues today.”
In addition to wanting the site used as a place of learning and a community cultural hub, Djuric says, “we’re also thinking about the land”.
“It would be really great if the whole site was used as a children’s garden, where you could hear children laughing instead of crying.”
Though the State Government is currently consulting to develop a master plan for many of Parramatta’s historic sites, including the PFFP, Djuric is sceptical. “Each of these sites has had master plans before, but nothing has happened.”
Quite simply, she says, “The government are not listening to anyone”.
But, “We’re acting on it, we’re doing it, we’re not going to sit passively by and wait. It’s not just history, it’s people’s lives. After all, we are the last generation of Australians who experienced institutional ‘care’. Our stories, our experiences, matter.”