art, film, Forgotten Australians, memories, music, painting, photography

Asylum

by Bonney Djuric (guest author) on 4 May, 2010

Bonney discusses the historical background to her film and the notion of “asylum”:

The Female Factory was built in 1818 adjacent to the Colonial Government domain on land bounded to the south by a curve in the Parramatta River. It was a large site over a number of hectares and had been previously owned by Bligh and Marsden. The Factory was the brainchild of Governor Macquarie who in his concerns for the safety of the women and children of the colony recommended that a place be built to provide safe refuge for them. It was not long until the idealised safe refuge of Macquarie’s vision changed into a place of detention, incarceration and punishment.

Macquarie’s Female Factory building was partly demolished in 1885, some of its structure was incorporated into the now Institute of Psychiatry building at Cumberland Hospital. The main area where it once stood is now called the Deadyard an area of land bounded by the high stone walls of the Factory. By 1848 the Factory had been declared a place for paupers and lunatics.

In 1841 an orphanage was built on the drying grounds adjacent to the Factory, in an attempt to provide safe accommodation for the factory women’s children. It became known as the Roman Catholic Orphan School (RCOS).The premises of the Roman Catholic Orphan School were resumed by the NSW Government in 1886 and it ceased to function as an orphanage. Theories emerging from the Industrial Revolution shaped attitudes of the day which lead to the establishment of a Training and Industrial School on the site.

Between 1886 and 1983 it would go through many name changes each reflecting the social policy and attitudes of the day. What did not change over this ninety seven year period was the day to day life experienced by the inmates of the institution. In 1980 management of a section of the site was transferred to the Department of Corrective Services and it continues to operate as the Norma Parker Correctional Centre for Women.

Born as a disciplinary society, Australia was colonized during the period of the Industrial Revolution. It was a place of banishment for the displaced population of an English revolution that was fought not by using the gun or guillotine, but the more insidious instrument of control, reason and its progeny, science, in the interests of economy, made animate through morality and exercised by the judiciary.

It was within this climate that Governor Macquarie commissioned Francis Greenway to build Australia’s first institution of confinement the Female Factory at Parramatta in1821. In Macquarie’s correspondence[1] we can read of his genuine concern for the welfare of the women and children of the settlement and of his ambition to create a place of safety where women would not have to prostitute themselves in order to get food and a roof over their head.

The Female Factory was Australia’s first social experiment to create a self contained, self supporting institution where the values of hard work would be rewarded with liberation from penal servitude to that of social respectability. As the stone walls surrounding the site grew in height so did the attitudes to its occupants, now inmates, change. They became woman who no longer needed protection but the depraved that the emerging free settler society had to protect themselves from.  It became a place where idleness would not be tolerated. Its purpose had been endowed by the history of the institution of confinement to house the poor, unemployed, idle, criminal and mad women of the colony – a place that would shape Australian attitudes towards women as either damned whores or God’s police.

It was upon this site that the system of rewards and punishment of the institutions of confinement of the early 19th century would remain un-challenged until the early 1980’s and from where, in the Australian thought-system, cultural images and conceptions of ‘rottenness and taint’ would be associated with particular groups.

Although few remnants of the original Factory building exist, its legacy lives on in the lives of people who have experienced the so called ‘care’ of the institution. The experiences of these people, the Forgotten Australians, can be traced back to 17th century Europe, to the establishment of the Hopital General in Paris and to the workhouses of Great Britain.

From 1821 to the present day every type of institution of confinement has been located on the Factory site; an orphanage, a training school, a psychiatric hospital and a prison.

Perhaps in our current political climate, where the meaning of asylum has shifted emphasis to that of the refugee, the asylum seeker, we will come to realize that their experience of the institution of confinement- the detention centres – are no different to that of those in other institutions established to provide a place of so called sanctuary in both contemporary and historical terms.  Attention to their plight may present an opportunity to question where our attitudes and beliefs about those who we place in such institutions actually originated from and more importantly bring about a change in our thinking.

“Life is more important than art. That’s what makes art so important”.    – John Malpede.


[1] Macquarie colonial papers State Library of NSW.

Further information about the site featured in the film can be found here.

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