Historic Abbotsford Convent sits on a hill by a bend in the Yarra River. On a recent trip to Melbourne, we caught one of the frequent buses which pass this historic site. We could just as easily have caught a train from Flinders Station.
Once a Catholic institution with a dark past, less than ten years ago Abbotsford Convent became a thriving community arts, cultural and learning hub. Four kilometres from the CBD, it spreads over 16 acres and boasts 11 buildings which are on the National Heritage List.
The Convent occupies part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. It continues to be a meeting place for the Central Victorian Tribes, known as the Kulin Nation. The Kulin people have an office in one of the Convent’s buildings. I first became award of the area when I read and reviewed Tony Birch’s Ghost River.
Once the property of the Good Shepherd religious order, the Convent is now owned and operated by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation, a not for profit organisation
Present uses of Abbotsford Convent
Artists and photographers lease around 100 separate working and teaching spaces. There are well-appointed areas for conferences, concerts and weddings. The Sofia Mundi Steiner School, with pupils from pre-primary to Year 12, occupies one of the buildings next to the Collingwood Children’s Farm.
I didn’t do enough research before we went. If I had, I would have known that if you want excitement at Abbotsford Convent, avoid Mondays. On weekends, markets, weddings and an assortment of other events take over the gardens and covered areas.
We viewed the buildings, walked in the gardens and imagined some of the former life of the convent. The open cafes well-patronised. Cam’s Kiosk, where we ate lunch, served rich, thick pumpkin soup. It contained ingredients I can only guess at. They gave it amazing taste and texture. John voted his warm Italian salad the winner. I doubt that!
Potted history of Abbotsford Convent
Farms were established along the Yarra soon after the settlement of Melbourne. Perhaps in the first instance, squatters lived there. However, the first recorded land sales at Abbotsford occurred in 1838. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd bought the property when the original farmer died in 1850.
In 1863 four nuns from Ireland started a convent where they could care for women in need. By 1900, the convent had become the largest charitable institution in the southern hemisphere.
At its peak, over 1 000 women and children lived in the gated property. There were vegetable and fruit gardens, dairy and poultry farms and a piggery. Income to buy what could not be grown or made on site was generated through lace-making and commercial laundry services.
In 1975, the nuns sold the site to the State Government. The farmland became the Collingwood Children’s Farm. The buildings were used by the Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences and eventually became part of La Trope University.
When the university departed, plans were developed for redevelopment of the land into residential and commercial buildings. A major public campaign was mounted to transform the site into its present form. The campaign lasted seven years and eventually, after public and media pressure, the Abbotsford Convent Coalition won the fight.
With the help of State and Commonwealth funding many of the buildings have been restored. Some, including the laundries, still need attention. You can read more about the history of Abbotsford Convent here.
To support the women and girls in their custody and care, the nuns established what is known as a Magdalen Asylum and Laundry. (Made famous through the films The Magdalene Sisters, 2002, and Philomena, 2014
These laundries responded to the so called ‘rescue movement’ of the 19th century. They were meant to provide refuge and rehabilitation for young women who had somehow acted outside the normal behaviour expected of them. They could be brought to Abbotsford by their families or the police via court orders.
Once in the confines of the institutions, they earned their keep through unremitting servitude in the laundries. Their work serviced hotels, other institutions, the Victorian Railways and wealthy families. Unlike the orphans and other girls on site, they had no access to education
Through their free labour, and that of the nuns who worked alongside them, the prices of commercial competitors could be cut. Income was used to run the convent, feed the other residents and finance other charitable ventures.
An article in Online Opinion says:
We do know, as a result of the Federal Senate report Forgotten Australians (2004) that the Good Shepherd laundries in Australia acted as prisons for the girls who were forced to labour in workhouses laundering linen for local hospitals or commercial premises. The report also described the conditions as characterised by inedible food, unhygienic living conditions and little or no education.
Strolling in the grounds and admiring the buildings at Abbotsford Convent, I found it impossible not to feel the sense of misery and desolation which would have been experienced by women incarcerated there. The buildings and gardens form a fitting monument to their memories.