Female Orphan School and Historical Precinct, Parramatta Campus

Female Orphan School distant viewThe University of Western Sydney Parramatta Campus, home to the Whitlam Institute, occupies a site of remarkable historical significance. High on the banks of the Parramatta River, the historical precinct is home to some of Australia’s oldest and most beautiful buildings. The Female Orphan School is recognised as being the oldest three-storey brick building in Australia, and the nation's oldest public building


The Female Orphan School building's foundation stone was laid in 1813 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie and was one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by the fledgling colonial government. The building was to be modelled after Mrs Elizabeth Macquarie’s family home ‘Airds’ in Appin, Scotland, and would have been an imposing sight. The building was finally ready for occupation in 1818.

The Female Orphan School has had a varied institutional history. It originally operated as a school for orphaned girls and expanded in 1850 to include orphaned boys. The school was closed in 1887 when a change in government policy favoured placing orphans with foster families. In 1888 Sir Henry Parkes authorised that the building be used as a hospital for the mentally ill, and the building became the Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane. From 1893-1904 expansions to the wings were added by Liberty Vernon, the New South Wales Government Architect. In 1975 the school was listed by the National Trust and in the mid 1980s it was vacated when the Rydalmere Psychiatric Hospital was closed.  The psychiatric hospital operated for some 90 years.


Female Orphan School windowsThe NSW Government transferred ownership of the Female Orphan School which had been derelict since the mid 1980’s to the University of Western Sydney in 1995. The University undertook an internal restoration of the three-storey central section of the main building as well as a complete external restoration of the entire Female Orphan School. The building was formally re-opened on 21 October 2003, and is now used for a public gallery and University offices.


The Whitlam Institute is currently housed in the Medical Superintendent’s House, just across from the Female Orphan School. This building was originally a single storey residence built for the ‘Master of the Orphanage’ in approximately 1868 – 1870. It became the residence of the Medical Superintendent of the Rydalmere Hospital for the Insane in 1888 and was extended with an additional storey. The house was used as a ward in the hospital’s more recent history.