Abbotsford Convent

Melbourne, Victoria

A former Catholic reformatory, Abbotsford Convent was, for the impoverished girls who lived there, either a godsend or an unforgiving prison, depending on how they were categorised when they first arrived.

- © Andy Wagstaffe

Abbotsford Convent And 'Contamination'

The convent was established in 1863 by a group of French nuns, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd. At the time, Melbourne was in dire need of charitable institutions to care for the needy and neglected. The convent was ostensibly meant to serve this purpose.

It took in up to 1,000 girls at a time, providing them with food, shelter, education and work. There was one problem however: the Sisters subscribed to the 19th century doctrine of 'contamination'.

According to this theory sinfulness could be spread from person to person through contact, much like a virus. This meant that, were the nuns to house all of the girls together, the malice of the worst of them would infect the rest. Their solution to this was simple: separate the girls into groups based on their moral worthiness and then isolate them so as to stop the spread. Even during worship they were kept apart, the church split into sections by partitions.

The 'better' of these groups were likely treated well, but reports on the 'less good' groups' experiences are shocking.

'We were forced to work in the laundry at 14 years, not allowed to attend school,' says one ex-resident. 'They made a fortune from us cleaning sheets and towels for upmarket hotels, while we were children.'

- © Nick Carson

Abbotsford Convent: A Commune

Despite this account and others like it, the convent is not remembered in a wholly negative light. When it was first set-up, Melbourne was a place of huge inequality. The Victoria goldrush had devastated the city's social fabric and Abbotsford, being a working class neighbourhood, was a place of particular hardship.

There were many children who needed to be fed and, at the very least, the convent served this purpose. Set up on a still functioning farm it was largely self-sufficient (albeit through the means of child labour). It has a hugely problematic history, there is no understating this, but it did provide some with a means of survival.

- © Nick Carson

Abbotsford Convent Into The Modern Day

In the early 1950s the convent was reformed and became less Draconian. It continued to function until 1974, when it was left deserted. By the 1990s the site was largely derelict. Private developers planned to convert it into an exclusive residential enclave, but people from the nearby area campaigned against this, seeking to protect the historic buildings.

Numbered amongst these was a medieval French-style Industrial School, a huge and grand main building and a series of formal gardens. They can still be seen today- the campaigners having been successful- and now form a sprawling arts, culture and education centre.

- © Lesley A Butler

Visiting Abbotsford Convent

The convent is open from 7.30am-9.30pm (Sun-Tue) and 7.30am-10.30pm (Wed-Sat). It features a range of exhibitions and events throughout the year (find out more on the official site) and also has a cafe, bakery and pay-what-you-feel restaurant. It is about an hours walk from the city centre, has a car park for drivers and can also be reached via tram services 12 and 109 and bus services 200, 207, 905, 906 and 907.

- © Ali C

Interested in finding more places like this? Try one of our Melbourne Scavenger Hunts - untangle cryptic clues as a team, as you are taken on a journey to the most unique, unusual and bizarre corners of Melbourne and beyond!

Or discover other prisons in Australia and around the world in our articles on Old Melbourne Gaol, Perth's Fremantle Prison, Paris' Conciergerie, Sydney's Cockatoo Island, Manchester's Strangeways Prison and London's Wormwood Scrubs.


What you need to know

Abbotsford Convent
1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia
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