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Bonnyrigg House and the Male Orphanage and School

Home > Sydney > Free | Historic Houses
by glenop (subscribe)
So much to little time to see it all.
Published October 8th 2013
Little remains of this grim convict era orphanage
The State Heritage listed Bonnyrigg House

I'm standing on top of a hill with commanding views of the modern housing estates that comprise the suburb of Bonnyrigg. I'm surrounded by long grass, a few trees and an unusual amount of signs saying 'No Dumping'. I couldn't call it a park; there is no sign with a name.

There is absolutely nothing to indicate the historical significance of where I am apart from one odd looking old Two Storey white house on a large block of land that stands out among all these modern brick 1990's homes.

It is now referred to as Bonnyrigg House and it is all that remains of Australia's first purpose built orphanage for boys. Constructed in 1826 as the 'Masters Quarters' it was once part of huge estate that encompassed dormitories, a dining room, school rooms, school, watch house, hospital, stable and yard, coach house, offices, tailor's shop, bakehouse, storekeeper's house, clothing store and privvies.


By the early 1800's it was becoming ever more urgent to provide care for young children who had been left homeless and destitute because they had been abandoned (children of convicts or had been left orphaned by tragedy).

The first orphanage in Australia was established in Sydney in 1801. By 1824 a school for boys called 'New Farm' near Smithfield was founded but another site was soon selected at Bulls Hill, now Bonnyrigg.

The establishment of the school was important in that it attempted to combine social welfare, schooling and what was an early form of an 'on the job' training program. The orphanage would serve as a school to teach farming practices to a generation of children.

On top of 'Bull's Hill'

Orphanage life

Boys worked the farm which included vineyards, vegetables, grain and cotton crops as well as cattle, sheep and pigs. James Busby, a pioneer in viticulture and wine making in Australia, was appointed the first farm manager and taught the boys viticulture, having planted a vineyard here in 1825.

The boys slept on hammocks in cramped dormitories. Their days consisted of working from sunrise until 8.00; school was from 9 to12 followed by working at their trades in the afternoon. Discipline, what ever that entailed, was carried out in front of the other boys. Some boys ran away from the orphanage never to be seen again. Some boys were 'apprenticed' to families where they could learn a trade other than farming. Some were treated well but others were returned with complaints of misbehaviour.

There were many difficulties in controlling so many boys from unfortunate, difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances in convict New South Wales. Part of the reason was the convict men who worked at the farm. It was reported that some of the boys were "vicious and rebellious" due in no small part to the influence of some criminal convict characters.

The Orphanage Closes

In 1850 the orphanage closed and the boys were relocated to Parramatta where they amalgamated with the girl's orphanage. The buildings slowly fell into disrepair over a 20 year period before being sold to William Simpson who farmed the land well into the 20th century. The house, now privately owned, has been much altered with sadly unsympathetic additions.

Looking out from on top of the hill nowadays, it's difficult to imagine the scale of the farm that was like a small village of buildings, farm animals and acres of crops. It's hard to imagine the sight of hundreds of boys, all under 14, toiling on an isolated farm in what was then, still a fairly remote part of the colony.

Source: 'vicious and rebellious'?: Life at the Male Orphan School, 1819-1850, Fairfield City Museum and Gallery 2005. NSW Government Department of Environment and Heritage.

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Why? Try to imagine a boy's life in this hell hole.
When: n/a
Where: 19 Cartwright Street Bonnyrigg, NSW
Cost: n/a
Your Comment
It was certainly a hard life for orphans back then.
by Bryony Harrison (score: 4|12594) 2499 days ago
Thanks for this most informative article.
by Cornelia Deller (score: 2|182) 2497 days ago
Fairfield Council could at least erect a plaque or something outside this house, so the public can realise its heritage. I think too much of our history is just lost and forgotten. Thanks for a good article, well researched.
by jenjo (score: 0|8) 2484 days ago
William Simpson was my great grandfather and I spent many happy school holidays staying here with my grandparents who inherited the house. As a child the house was imposing and scary at night! Would love to see it again to relive the memories.
by mcvik (score: 0|4) 1954 days ago
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