In 1871, the prison buildings were repurposed for an industrial training school for girls and a separate reformatory for young women. That same year, the Vernon – a nautical school ship for boys – found a new home, moored off the northeast corner of the island.
To distance the island from the stigma attached to the former prison, the authorities renamed it ‘Biloela’. The Reverend William Ridley had suggested the name, which is a First Nations word for cockatoo, to Somerset Lowry-Corry, the Governor of New South Wales.
This exercise in rebranding, however, did not reflect the reality for the girls housed on the island. Their experience was often a cruel contrast to the rights and privileges afforded the boys of the Vernon and its successor, a nautical school ship known as the Sobraon.
A solution to the youth crisis
The establishment of industrial schools and reformatories in NSW was deemed necessary during the 1860s due to problems associated with population growth in cities, including poverty and overcrowding. Many men had left their families to pursue the gold rushes, and the number of orphans, young vagrants and juvenile delinquents was growing rapidly.
Politician (and future NSW premier) Henry Parkes resolved to reform the legislation regarding vagrant children and juvenile delinquents. Consequently, two acts were passed; namely, the Industrial Schools Act 1866 (aka the Act for the relief of Destitute Children) and the Reformatory Schools Act 1869 (aka the Act to establish Juvenile Reformatories).
Children who committed criminal acts were held in juvenile reformatories. Under the Reformatory Schools Act, any child under the age of 16 who had been convicted of a criminal offence and received a sentence of 14 days or more days in prison, could be sent to a reformatory school for between one and 5 years.
Meanwhile, children who appeared to be 16 years or younger but had not committed any crime, could be detained and admitted to an industrial school if they had engaged in ‘at risk’ behaviour – for example, begging, loitering, sleeping in the open air, and having no lawful accommodation.
Children were most often detained for living and wandering the streets in the company of thieves, prostitutes, or people with no means of support – even if these people were relatives. Parents could not request that their uncontrollable children be sent to an industrial school.
The plight of the Biloela girls
In 1871, the Newcastle Industrial School for Girls closed, and its inhabitants were transferred to Cockatoo Island. The new establishment was divided into two institutions: the Biloela Industrial School for Girls and the Biloela Reformatory.
The reformatory housed girls who had broken the law and the industrial school was for girls who were considered at risk. Although the reformatory and the industrial school were in separate buildings, in practice the girls were not separated. The industrial school usually held up to 120 girls – ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years – and was managed by a superintendent and a matron. By comparison, the number of girls in the reformatory was much smaller.
At the industrial school, the girls were given domestic duties to perform by the matron. Although part of the day was set aside for education, they were not taught by qualified teachers and the curriculum centred on cleanliness, industry, and diligence. They were taught how to cook, do laundry, and perform needlework.
The living conditions were poor at both the industrial school and reformatory, and the girls responded to harsh treatment by engaging in unruly behaviour. An enquiry into rioting by the ‘Biloela girls’ in 1871 revealed head shaving and solitary confinement had been used as forms of disciplinary action. Two years later, the Public Charities Commission identified the use of straitjackets to subdue girls. It was also reported that some girls had visible bruising and that others had been confined, barefoot and semi-clothed, to unlit rooms without furniture, and fed only bread and water.
In 1880, the Biloela Reformatory School was closed and the girls it had housed were transferred to the Shaftesbury Reformatory located at Double Bay. The Biloela Industrial School for Girls closed seven years later, and its inhabitants were transferred to the Roman Catholic Orphan School at Parramatta.