This week on 2SER Breakfast, Nicole Cama talked to Tess Connery about the Shaftesbury Reformatory on New South Head Road in Vaucluse that replaced the infamous Biloela Reformatory and Industrial School for Females on Cockatoo Island.
After several reports were made in the 1870s on the inadequacy of Biloela, the girls’ reformatory on Cockatoo Island, the New South Wales government needed to find an alternative location that wouldn’t have Biloela’s ‘dry, stony prison aspect’. The site at Vaucluse was selected because it occupied ‘a position which, for a charming outlook on either hand and for healthfulness, could not be surpassed‘ .
The Shaftesbury Reformatory opened in 1880 in an old hotel building that had been converted for the purpose. The Reformatory functioned as an alternative to prison for girls aged under 16 who were convicted of criminal offences, and eventually comprised a series of cottages and three solitary cells surrounded by high fences. It usually housed up to 20 girls for one to five years.
On its opening in 1880, the Sydney Morning Herald said:
..every part of the building have been designed in the most approved manner; and while throughout there is the unmistakable aspect of a place where the inmates are forcibly detained, there are many things about the style of construction and the fittings of the different compartments which give a more than ordinarily cheerful appearance to everything, and doubtless will have a very beneficial effect in the reformation of the girls.
Girls were sent to the Shaftesbury Reformatory for a range of offences and for varying lengths of time: 14 year old Emily Miller was sentenced to 14 days in 1882 for stealing a diamond ring from her master; Alice Bambilliski was sentenced to two years in 1890 for stealing 25 pounds from the Kogarah Post Office; and Annie Andrews, aged 15, was sentenced to two years and four months in 1897 for being an ‘idle and disorderly person’.
In an article in the Evening News in 1908 looking at the history of the Reformatory, columnist Mary Salmon wrote that ‘rioting occasionally took place, and the Institution was once set alight’. One of the reformatory’s matrons was quoted in the article as having said:
‘I have found a great improvement since the first year I took over the institution…Where I used up thirty-six yards of cane a term, I can now easily manage with twelve.’
In 1904, the Reformatory was closed and the building was used as a home for babies and mothers before it became the Shaftesbury Inebriate Institution for men in 1915, the only state run institution for alcohol and drug offenders of its time. A female section opened the following year. The Institution also allowed people to voluntarily check themselves in for a fee, and residents could work so as to keep their minds occupied so their thoughts wouldn’t stray into that ‘craving that takes possession of the inebriate.’
The institution closed in 1929 and the building was demolished in 1930.
There are now two private houses where the main Reformatory building once stood, while the former grounds house the Vaucluse Bowling Club and the luxurious Mark Moran Group retirement/aged care facility which opened in 2016 on the site of the former Vaucluse High School.
Head to the Dictionary to read Kim Hanna’s entry on the Shaftesbury Reformatory for more information: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/shaftesbury_reformatory
Nicole Cama is a professional historian, writer and curator. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity.
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