The Convent of the Good Shepherd at Abbotsford was established by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863. It was the first institution established by the Sisters in Australia - four Irish women travelled from France and landed at Port Melbourne on 24 June 1863, and purchased the property on the banks of the Yarra River at Abbotsford. A number of different institutions operated on the site at Abbotsford from its beginnings until 1974, when the Sisters ceased as providers of residential care. At its peak, the site accommodated more than 1,000 people.
In 1864, the Sisters established an Industrial School (consisting of a refectory, work-rooms and a laundry) and a Private Reformatory for Roman Catholic Girls on the site. The Victorian government had passed the Neglected and Criminal Children's Act in 1864, providing for the establishment of industrial schools for 'neglected children', and reformatories for 'criminal children'.
An orphanage, known as St Joseph's, opened in 1865. Another section known as St Mary's housed the 'voluntary admissions' to the Orphanage, from around 1908.
Another section of the Abbotsford Convent was the Magdalen Asylum (built in 1877). Unlike other 'female refuges' of the time, it did not admit pregnant women and their infants. (Catholic women could go to the St Joseph's Receiving Home at Broadmeadows from 1902.) Inmates of the Magdalen Asylum were housed in a building called Sacred Heart. The majority of them worked in the laundry.
In December 1883, the Reformatory relocated to Oakleigh, due to overcrowding at Abbotsford.
Like many other Good Shepherd institutions around the world, the laundry was an important facet of the operations at Abbotsford. The commercial laundry, known as the Magdalen laundry, provided income for the Sisters, and work for the girls and women in the Sisters' care. According to Alan Gill, in Australia in the 1950s there was a saying, 'Bad girls do the best sheets'.
From the early 1950s, the Good Shepherd Convent in Abbotsford housed an institution for Catholic girls and young women. It received wards of state as well as private placements. Merritt reported in 1958 that of the 300 girls housed in the Good Shepherd schools, only 18 were wards of state. The rest had been sent to the Sisters by their families, on account of their 'unmanageable, unsatisfactory moral behaviour'.
In April 1956, the Good Shepherd Convent was declared an approved children's home under the Children's Welfare Act 1954. Later in April 1956, the Convent of the Good Shepherd was declared as an approved juvenile school under the same legislation.
In 1960, the newly established Social Welfare Department designated the Good Shepherd Convents at Abbotsford and Oakleigh as Youth Training Centres to receive young offenders. These Youth Training Centres, or Juvenile Schools, run by the Sisters were the only institutions of their type in Victoria to receive 'voluntary placements'.
A building known as St Anne's housed a cooking and typing school from the 1960s, as well as accommodation for some of the Magdalen inmates.
One submission to the 2004 Senate Inquiry from a woman who was at Abbotsford in the 1950s described Sacred Heart as 'a terrible cold and frightened place'. Its occupants ranged from 13 to 80 years old, and worked every day in the laundry, as well as doing ironing and packing cane baskets with manchester from Melbourne hotels.
Physical labour in the laundry and on other duties was mentioned in several submissions about Abbotsford Convent. One woman remembered her time there between 1950 and 1954:
'While I was at Abbotsford I was subjected to child labor. This took the form of domestic cleaning and because of my so-called retardation I was put to work making mattresses for most of the time ... My state ward files indicate that I did participate in pre-school activities but I have no memory of this but have powerful memories of the smell of the horsehair and the smells and texture of the ticking material.'
Other testimony about the Abbotsford Convent refers to young women having their hair cut off as punishment for absconding, children receiving insufficient schooling and poor food.
In the early 1970s, the Sisters converted the dormitory accommodation in Sacred Heart into smaller, separate units. These units hosted a program for a 'group-living situation for 20 emotionally disturbed girls', according to the Social Welfare Department annual report for 1972-73.
The Youth Training Centre at Abbotsford was closed by 1974 (however, St Margaret's Youth Training Centre at Oakleigh, remained operational).
In 2004, the site of the former Convent of the Sisters of Good Shepherd was entrusted to the Abbotsford Convent Foundation, following a seven-year campaign by activists to 'save the convent' from planned residential development.
In February 2018, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand unviled a memorial at Abbotsford, to honour the girls, women and children who lived at Good Shepherd institutions around the country.
28 February 2018
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/vic/E000144
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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