Built in the 1880s and modified in 1905, 1907 and in the 1920s, the laundries are of interest for their refined design and detailing, such as the impressive roof monitors and elaborate Wunderlich (pressed metal) ceilings, which are unusual for a late 19th century industrial building. These spaces were the largest commercial laundries in Melbourne during the 1920s. They are thought to be amongst the few surviving and relatively intact examples of a Magdalen Laundry anywhere in the world. The ground floor included the former laundries, mangling (wringing), ironing and packing rooms.
Magdalen Asylums, like the one at the Abbotsford Convent, grew out of the ‘rescue movement’ of the 19th century. The original goal of the Convent’s Magdalen Asylum was to provide refuge and rehabilitation for the Sacred Heart girls who could be sent to the Convent for acting outside of the strict social mores of the day. The women were expected to find a different way in life, by learning domestic skills from the Sisters. Despite popular belief, single pregnant women were not knowingly sent to the Abbotsford Convent and women did not have to be Catholic to be placed in the Convent either. Young women were often brought by family members or guardians. The police, via court orders, would also admit women and girls of various ages to the care of the nuns.
The Abbotsford Convent’s laundries serviced many organisations, including Melbourne hotels, other Catholic institutions, government agencies such as the Victorian Railways, visiting ships and wealthy Catholic families. The women did not earn money and it was not until the 1960s that some younger women had access to the education available to orphans, boarders and other girls on site. The women were educated until their 14th year, like those in the outside world.
Free labour meant that the Sisters could undercut the prices of their commercial competitors. The income they generated fed and housed the women and financed other 'charitable ventures' of the Sisters. In the words of the Sisters: some women accepted the stability that life within this part of the Convent offered, but many resented the discipline, lack of education and unpaid nature of their work. Unlike other places of incarceration, the guardians, in this case the Sisters, always worked alongside the women they were caring for, with men employed to do the heavy lifting. Sisters spent most of their adult years working in the laundries, always without pay, in order to maintain their charitable activities.
When the Abbotsford Convent Foundation took over the site, the roofs leaked and the floors were extensively damaged. The spaces are now stable, although much more work is required to restore them for contemporary use. Once restored, the Laundries will be large versatile spaces.