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. Stage 1 restoration works were completed in June 2019, with the north side of the Laundry now available for contemporary artistic activation and community use. The southern spaces are now stablised, although further work is required to restore them to their full potential.
Respecting and Acknowledging the Convent’s Past
Today the Abbotsford Convent is owned and operated by the Abbotsford Convent Foundation (ACF) as a not for profit arts, cultural and learning precinct on behalf of the community. The ACF is not affiliated with Good Shepherd or any other religious organisation.
The Convent was inscribed on the National Heritage List in August 2017, with the Magdalen Laundries and asylum buildings recognised as an important physical record for those Australians and their families known as the Forgotten Australians. The Listing also states the harm of institutionalisation and the trauma experienced by many residents is acknowledged as part of the Convent’s heritage. The Convent’s place on the National Heritage List will help protect the site’s future for generations to come, while honouring and respecting those who were affected by its past.
You can learn more by joining one of our guided social history tours or by taking a self-guided walk (available via web browser and visitor app), which includes an oral history recording from Trish, a former resident who also worked in the Magdalen Laundries.
Magdalen Laundry Program
The Magdalen Laundry Program provides a space for artists, audiences and communities to experience new practices, narratives and histories, while respecting the heritage and social history of the Laundries. We aim to nurture female (identifying) experience and honour their leadership within these spaces into the future. Curated by Kelli Alred, the inaugural exhibition, Temporal Proximities, showcased work by contemporary Australian artists that reflected on notions of agency, displacement and time.