The Convent of the Good Shepherd at Abbotsford was established by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in 1863. A number of different institutions operated on the site at Abbotsford on the banks of the Yarra River, including an industrial school, reformatory, orphanage, female asylum and school. In 1961, it was designated by the department as a Youth Training Centre. In the early 1970s, the Sisters converted the dormitory accommodation into separate small units. By 1974, the Youth Training Centre had closed and residential accommodation for girls and young women had ceased at Abbotsford.
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.
Sources used to compile this entry: Annual report: Social Welfare Department, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1961-1978; 'A Piece of the Story': National Directory of Records of Catholic organisations caring for children separated from their families, Australian Catholic Social Welfare Commission & Australian Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, November 1999, https://cssa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/A-Piece-of-the-Story.pdf; 'Submission no 166', in Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care: Submissions received by the committee as at 17/3/05, Commonwealth of Australia, 2005, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/submissions/sublist; 'History', in The Abbotsford Convent, Abbotsford Convent Foundation, 2006, https://abbotsfordconvent.com.au/about/history/; Victoria Government Gazette Online Archive 1836-1997, State Library of Victoria, 2009, http://gazette.slv.vic.gov.au/; Barnard, Jill; Twigg, Karen, Holding on to Hope: a history of the founding agencies of MacKillop Family Services 1854-1997, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004; 'Convent of the Good Shepherd, Abbotsford (1863 - 1971)', in Finding Records, Department of Health and Human Services, State of Victoria, https://www.findingrecords.dhhs.vic.gov.au/collectionresultspage/Convent-of-the-Good-Shepherd-Abbotsford. See the 'List of records held by the department' section for information about records relating to Convent of the Good Shepherd, Abbotsford.; Gill, Alan, Bad girls do the best sheets, The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 2003, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/04/23/1050777303111.html; Merritt, D.R., Child Care Staffs in Institutions: report on survey undertaken for the Children's Welfare Advisory Council to determine the need for courses of training, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1957; 'Submission no 533', in Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care: Submissions received by the committee as at 17/3/05, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/submissions/sublist; Victorian Government, 'Victorian Government Submission to the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care (Submission 173)', in Inquiry into Institutional Care: Submissions received as at 17/03/05, July 2003, http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Community_Affairs/Completed_inquiries/2004-07/inst_care/submissions/sublist.
Prepared by: Cate O'Neill
Created: 20 February 2009, Last modified: 14 January 2019