Strangely enough, during my first contact with the Parramatta Female Factory Friends I was witness to history in the making.
Having filled out the contact form on the Factory Friends’ website in early August, I received an E-mail from the organisation’s President Gay Hendriksen asking me if I could be at NSW Parliament at 10:30am on Thursday the 19th of August to sign a petition.
I arrived to find a large group of people assembled outside the Parliament, many of whom were wearing ‘Parramatta Female Factory Friends’ badges. Other attendees appeared to be from Unions (the CFMEU and USU), and the North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group. Gay informed me that today the Female Factory Friends, and other groups concerned about residential development in the Parramatta area, were presenting a petition to the Parliament with over 10,000 signatures. This petition aimed to put a stop to proposed developments in the Parramatta historic precinct (where the Female Factory is located) including a 30-storey high-rise apartment building. To achieve this aim, the petition sought recognition for the Female Factory and surrounding area as a National Heritage site.
I was able to sign the petition and talk to some of the people who had been involved in the incredibly arduous process of collecting (with pen and paper, as per NSW legislation) all of the signatures. This was a great opportunity to hear about people’s diverse motivations for involvement in the campaign and the Factory Friends group. Some people were the descendants of factory workers who wanted the site preserved to honour their family members; others believed that the Parramatta precinct was an invaluable insight into Australian colonial heritage, and some people simply wanted the area protected against overdevelopment. These conversations gave me an insight into just how much hard work is required for groups interested in public histories to preserve historical sites and generate interest in their significance. Unlike academic historians who usually have a devoted audience (small as it may be), groups interested in public histories must engage the community before they can convey more detailed histories. Thus, they must not only convince an audience, but create one.
Later, we were received at the Parliament by Greens MPs Jamie Parker and David Shoebridge, as well as Labor MP Penny Sharpe. All three of these parliamentarians spoke of the significance of the Female Factory as a historical site, and the importance of its preservation. They also compared the factory to other similar early-colonial sites in Australia, such as Tasmania’s Port Arthur, which has already received National Heritage listing. I found it interesting that David Shoebridge reflected on 1827 riot at the Female Factory (which was caused by poor conditions and rations for factory-workers) as one of Australia’s earliest industrial actions. This aspect of the Female Factory’s history seemed to resonate with many members of the crowd (and particularly the Union-affiliated attendees) and demonstrated the way in which particular narratives can make historical sites and events resonate in the present.
Following the MPs speeches, we entered NSW Parliament House where the petition was formally tabled. In one of the Parliament reading rooms, we then assembled as a group and people who had been involved in the campaign (including Gay herself) spoke about its importance. Many speakers highlighted the significance of the factory as a historical site which commemorated women’s involvement (and exploitation) in the early Australian colony. One speaker, who had migrated from Greece to Australia in the 1970s, said that he failed to understand how Australians could be so oblivious to the historical importance of the site. “No one would ever be allowed to build an apartment on the Acropolis,” he said. Another speaker also recognised the role of the Female Factory as a point for early contact between British colonists and indigenous Australians on the Parramatta River.
Suffice to say, my first meeting with the Factory Friends was pretty exciting. I witnessed a grassroots movement of people interested in a historical site petitioning democratic representatives for its preservation, and heard many stories about the significance of the site to the group’s members.
For more information about how the petition was compiled and presented to the NSW Parliament, and photos from the day, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-20/push-to-protect-parramatta-womens-factory-from-development/6711438