The story of the Parramatta Female Factory has been recounted many times, online, in books and in the media. Dates, names of superintendants, the riots, it's all there. But what if we could find a snapshot of the place itself? Such a snapshot exists in the Colonial Secretary's Papers, with, amongst other documents, two inventories, for 1822 and 1825 (erroneously indexed as 1824 on Ancestry.com).1, 2
There was a transition from the old Factory, above the men's gaol, to the purpose-built Female Factory. That transition can be seen in the sleeping arrangements for the women. In 1822 sleep was a haphazard affair, with a jumble of beds, ships' trundles, and hammocks, to accommodate 213 women, with 230 mixed blankets. By 1825 there were 505 beds and 517 blankets, all uniform.
Clothes also changed as the new order was established. In 1822, almost half of the clothes listed came from the female convicts on the Mary Ann, John Bull and Providence transports. There were also slops made from factory cloth, and eighty-one women were wearing “old factory dresses... nearly worn out”. Some of these women were without shoes, yet there were twenty-six pairs of new shoes in the stores which had not been distributed.
|Ninety-six straw bonnets were listed in the 1822 inventory. They would have been similar to this one held by the National Trust in the UK. Straw bonnet, 1815-1820, Snowshill Wade Costume Collection, National Trust Images, NT1349789, retrieved June 23 2016|
The clothing situation had improved by 1825. The worn-out dresses were gone, as were the transport clothes. There were instead dresses, petticoats and jackets made of India Print, shifts and caps of linen. Some were listed as old, others as new, but there was no record of “worn out” clothing. On 13 December 1822 a tender notice had appeared in the Sydney Gazette, to supply the Female Factory with “1800 yards of India Print, of the darkest hue and strongest texture”.3 The women were wearing the results.
Lots of other clothing items were also listed in 1825, particularly clothes for children, made of factory linen, along with sheets for the Parramatta Hospital and cushions for the Church. The assumption is that the women of the Factory made all these items, yet strangely there are no sewing supplies in the inventory: no shears or scissors (save one pair), no sewing needles, no thread. Were the clothes made elsewhere? In which case, why store them here? Or were needles and thread considered too awkward or insignificant to account for?
One of the aims of the Factory was that it should be a centre for cloth production. The inventories bear out that this was happening, but if the Colonial government really wanted it to succeed, there were some glaring absences and noticeable shortfalls.
There were looms, nine in 1822 and thirteen in 1825, not enough for large scale production. There were also spinning wheels, swifts, reeds, hand cards and other paraphenalia.
The looms and the only warping mill were in the men's barracks, along with some spinning wheels (for wool only). The men's barracks also had all the swifts, some hand cards, and ten carding stools. The majority of the wheels, carding equipment and reeds were in the women's factory.
Were the women doing all the wool preparation and the men all the weaving? As there were spinning wheels in the men's barracks, were the men also spinning? Perhaps it indicates the presence of women in the weaving room. In which case, were they also weaving? Flax and flax-processing equipment were all stored in the women's section, and the men had no flax wheels in their inventory. Was flax the domain of women and linen the preserve of men?4
A noticeable addition to the women's equipment between 1822 and 1825 is a “machine to tease wool” (teased wool is easier to pick clean of vegetative matter, etc). The carpenter at the Factory, James Slater, specialised in textile machinery, yet beyond the teasing machine, there were no other forms of advanced mechanisation. James had made Spinning Jennies and carding machines for Simeon Lord.5 However, his skills were less desired in Parramatta.
In 1825 there were no jennies listed, and there seems to have been no effort to import or have built knitting frames. Such items would have reduced the number of workers needed, or dramatically increased output. Had there been a willingness to invest in knitting frames on a large scale, and to allow the women to use them, it may have been possible for the Factory to provide the Colony as a whole with stockings and other machine-knitted goods.
|Stocking Frame, Ruddington Framework Knitter's Museum, John Beniston, 2005, Wikimedia Commons|
The Factory was producing respectable quantities of woollen cloth, with some linen and some linsey-woolsey (linen warp, wool weft), enough to supply the Hospital, the Asylum and the Native School with blankets, make clothes for the inmates and send bolts to the Kings Store in Sydney. While it has been described at times as poor quality, it was good enough for the purposes to which it was put, and in 1822 some cloth of superior quality was being produced.6 Perhaps the variable nature of the cloth reflected the government's unwillingness to truly commit to textile production at the Factory, except as a punishment regime.
There was also the problem of “commercial interests”. The English government would not allow processed cloth to be sent back home for sale, as this would have worsened the already difficult situation for the mills in England. So the only market for the Factory cloth was the colonies. Simeon Lord and others (including importers) argued strongly against the Female Factory producing cloth on the grounds of competition. So the government, instead of being smart, limited the Factory to supplying only convicts, the asylum, the Orphan School and the Native School, that is the “less deserving”. The dream of the Factory actually being viable, and teaching the women really useful skills, died for the sake of rich men's profits. Some things in New South Wales never change.
Back to the Factory.
The women convicts were also making stockings, although looking at the 1825 inventory, there were a lot of bad or indifferent knitters and only a small handful of good knitters. There were, however, only 39 sets of needles, which limited the number of women who were able to knit at any one time, and would not have allowed the inexperienced much time to practice.
The 1822 and 1825 inventories show a growing but half-hearted textile manufactory. They answer some questions over division of labour, but raise others. They also show the improvement in the lives of the inmates, particularly in the areas of clothing and bedding, as the new Factory established itself and moved away from the depredations of the old room above the gaol.
1Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1856 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original Data: New South Wales Government. Main series of letters received, 1788-1825. Series 897, Reels 6041-6064, 6071-6072. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia, Parramatta Female Factory inventory July 29 1822, accessed 20 July, 2016
2Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1856 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original Data: New South Wales Government. Main series of letters received, 1788-1825. Series 897, Reels 6041-6064, 6071-6072. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia, Parramatta Female Factory inventory Nov 2 1824 [sic], accessed 20 July, 2016
3Trove, “Government and General Order”, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803-1842), 13 December 1822, p1, c1
4Linen thread is made from flax. Why the different name for the raw and processed states, I do not know.
5Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1856 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original Data: New South Wales Government. Memorials to the Governor, 1810-25. Series 899, Fiche 3001-3162. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia, Memorial of James Slater to Governor, 20 August 1822, accessed 12 February, 2013
6Ancestry.com. New South Wales, Australia, Colonial Secretary's Papers, 1788-1856 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc, 2010. Original Data: New South Wales Government. Main series of letters received, 1788-1825. Series 897, Reels 6041-6064, 6071-6072. State Records Authority of New South Wales. Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia, Report of William Tuckwell 22 Nov 1822, accessed 20 June, 2016