A CONVICT-ERA site where "uncontrollable" young women were sent to be reformed has been formally recognised as one of Australia's most significant heritage places.
Western Sydney's Parramatta Female Factory precinct has been added to the national heritage list – a decision that may prove a thorn in the side of the NSW government's property development arm, which wants to build 30-storey apartment blocks near the site.
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg on Tuesday said the listing would "allow the Australian community to stand witness to the lives and experiences of women and children who lived there".
The Female Factory precinct occupies a largely neglected, inaccessible three-hectare site next to the Parramatta CBD.
Established in 1818, the large Georgian sandstone building was the first destination of all convict women sent to colonial Australia who had not been assigned to settlers. Almost 9000 women performed hard labour there from 1821 to 1848. The work mostly involved making cloth and linen. Many women were denied proper food, clothes and wages, and lived in poor accommodation.
The colony's second governor, John Hunter, described convict women as the "disgrace of their sex", saying they were "far worse than the men" and "generally found at the bottom of every infamous transaction committed in the colony".
The precinct also housed the notoriously cruel Parramatta Girls Home where 30,000 orphans and state wards were locked up from 1887 to 1974.
Many were deemed by child welfare authorities to be "neglected" and "uncontrollable". They suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse – mistreatment later detailed in testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
A Catholic orphanage, a modern women's prison and a women's asylum have also occupied the site.
Mr Frydenberg said the harm of institutionalisation and the trauma experienced by many residents is acknowledged as part of the site's heritage, and visitors are encouraged to learn about its complex history.
The female factory precinct will become the nation's 113th national heritage place and share the status and protection of other items on the list including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Snowy Mountains Scheme and the Great Barrier Reef.
The precinct has been at the centre of a battle between heritage advocates and the NSW government's property development arm. As part of the North Parramatta Urban Transformation Program, UrbanGrowth NSW wants to build 3900 dwellings in buildings up to to 30 storeys near the Female Factory site.
It follows a 2011 proposal by health authorities to install data servers and air-conditioning units in the former factory building.
The precinct is already on the state heritage register, but inclusion on the national list will deliver greater protections and would require the creation of a management plan to guide the treatment of heritage values at the site.
However UrbanGrowth NSW has previously said the national heritage listing would not change its plans, and restoring and adaptively re-using the heritage buildings was part of the proposal.
A spokesman for the agency on Tuesday said it strongly supported the listing, which was "in line with the NSW government's plans for the renewal of Parramatta North".
North Parramatta Residents Action Group spokesman Steve Brancatisano questioned the commitment of authorities to the site's preservation.
"Surrounding a national heritage site with high density residential development is a repellent idea that serves the interests of rapacious property developers and no-one else," he said.