From a meeting point for the Wurundjeri and Kulin Nation peoples, to a convent housing over 1,000 women and children, to a university, to the largest multi-practice creative precinct in Australia – the Abbotsford Convent’s story is diverse.
The Abbotsford Convent is located on part of the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people. The nearby junction of the Merri Creek and Yarra River at Dights Falls continues to be an important meeting place for the Central Victorian Tribes, who are also known as the Kulin Nation. The site is enclosed in a natural amphitheatre that for centuries provided the Wurundjeri people with a sheltered and resource-rich camping area. The river flats and deep fresh water also provided plentiful opportunities for hunting and fishing. The Wurundjeri have maintained their connection to the site, with their office located in the Convent’s Providence building.
The land on which the Abbotsford Convent now stands was subdivided and sold off; creating the first land releases that expanded Melbourne beyond the urban centre, with riverside properties sold as ‘gentlemen farmlets’. In 1842, John Orr established Abbotsford House and next door to him Edward Curr built St Heliers House. Curr was very active in politics and was a Member for Melbourne in the New South Wales Council. His greatest legacy followed his leadership of the successful campaign to separate the Port Phillip District from the colony of New South Wales and soon after, Victoria was proclaimed as a new colony. In 1850 Curr died and his widow, Elizabeth, sold the property to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.
Four nuns from the Order of the Good Shepherd arrived in Melbourne to establish a convent where they could care for women in need. Soon after purchasing Abbotsford House they purchased the neighbouring St Heliers House. Both of these grand homesteads were eventually demolished but many fine specimen trees remain from the original gardens. By 1900 the Convent was the largest charitable institution operating in the southern hemisphere. It was one of the largest Catholic complexes in Australia and at its peak over 1,000 women and children lived behind its enclosed walls. There were vegetable and fruit gardens, dairy and poultry farms and a piggery. Income to buy what could not be grown or made on site was generated through lace-making and commercial laundry services.
After much deliberation, the nuns sold the site. The state Premier at the time, Sir Rupert Hamer recognised the Convent’s significance and the Whitlam federal government contributed $5.5 million for its purchase. The farmland was divided from the main site and became the Collingwood Children’s Farm. The Institute of Early Childhood Development and the Lincoln Institute of Health Sciences moved in to establish a joint campus. In the late 1980s, the Lincoln Institute became part of La Trobe University and in 1989 La Trobe University took over the Convent.
After the university departed, a major property developer won the tender to purchase the land. Upon viewing the plans, local residents were stunned to find a proposal of 289 apartments, including a number of new buildings and the demolition of many heritage buildings. Five people met in a kitchen to discuss their dismay and thus the Abbotsford Convent Coalition was formed. The idea was to transform the site into an arts, educational, cultural and tourist precinct for the community. With support from the public and attention from the media, they led a massive community campaign that lasted for seven years.
In April of 2004, the Abbotsford Convent Coalition and the public finally won the fight to save the Convent. The State Government of Victoria gifted the site to the public; with $4 million to commence the restoration works and the City of Yarra contributed $1 million. With this, the Abbotsford Convent Foundation was born as the custodian of the site to own and manage it on behalf of the people, with a focus on arts, culture and learning. A strong team was built to implement the strategy and vision and the restoration works commenced. With many of the buildings left for years to become derelict and overgrown gardens beyond belief, the job ahead was monumental.
Thanks to the general public, local residents and the philanthropic community, a lot has happened since the site was saved. Ten years on, 60 per cent of the buildings have been restored, hundreds of tenants fill studio and office spaces, the venues are filled with performances, workshops, rehearsals, conferences and meetings, and there is an extensive program of events staged throughout the year. As a community hub and an accessible cultural platform and creative cluster, the Convent hosts a valuable confluence of connectivity, inspiration and ideas. With close to a million annual visitors, the Convent is now one of Australia’s most popular cultural icons.
In 2015 the Federal Government announced that the Abbotsford Convent Foundation (ACF) would receive a challenge grant of $2.681 million from the National Stronger Regions Fund (NSRF) to restore the 3200m2 Sacred Heart building – one of the few remaining dilapidated historic buildings at the Convent that awaits restoration and is therefore currently out of bounds. The NSRF support matched the extremely generous $2 million donation from the Dara Foundation, as well as other funds the ACF has generated over the past decade. With the building at serious risk of ruin if not secured soon, Sacred Heart has been a top priority for the ACF for some time. The Sacred Heart redevelopment is the biggest capital works program at the Convent since the original restorations a decade ago. Restoration works commenced in July 2017, and are expected to be completed in March 2018, creating a fit-for-use space to grow our onsite arts and cultural community, and to contribute to the sustainability and growth of the Convent long-term.
In August 2016, the State Government announced that the Abbotsford Convent Foundation would receive a contribution of $2.7 million towards transforming the Convent’s ageing and currently unusable Magdalen Laundry, granted from the $30 million ‘Living Heritage’ fund.
In August 2017, the Federal Government announced that the Abbotsford Convent had become the 111th site added to the Australian National Heritage List, joining iconic landmarks including the Royal Exhibition Building, Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Cricket Ground in achieving the country’s highest level of heritage recognition. Abbotsford Convent has been recognised for demonstrating Australia’s social and welfare history through the lens of a religious and charitable institution. Over the period of a century, thousands of girls and women were placed in care at the Convent, with many residing in the Convent’s Sacred Heart building, and labouring in the onsite Magdalen Laundries. While providing shelter, food and education, the Convent was also a place of hardship and ordeal for some of the women, as was often the experience of those in institutionalised care. By recognising the importance of this site, its heritage and its role as an institution of welfare during the 19th and 20th centuries, the Abbotsford Convent’s place on the National Heritage List captures the role of the church at that time in providing critically needed welfare support, while also honouring the experiences and the hardships that many women endured. Through social history tours and the Convent’s self-guided audio tour, the Abbotsford Convent Foundation has begun to retell the stories of these women, and we hope through sharing their history, we can begin to create a legacy and culture of healing.
Following nine months of meticulous conservation and restoration works, the North Magdalen Laundry officially opened to the community in June 2019. Led by Williams Boag Architects, with building works by FDC Construction & Fitout, and overseen by Heritage Victoria, this initial stage of works saw the North Laundry transformed from a derelict space to a new venue ready for creative activation and ongoing heritage interpretation. Stage 1 works in the Magdalen Laundry were generously supported by the Victorian Government through Heritage Victoria’s Living Heritage Program, and the John T Reid Charitable Trusts. The Convent will continue to advocate for more funding and resources to complete the project—in particular, to fully restore the two spectacular rooms at the southern end of the Laundry. While these spaces have now been stabilised, significant work is still required to make them available for a wide range of events run for and by the community, and to enable rich interpretation of this national treasure for our community now and for generations to come.
Today Abbotsford Convent is a beloved urban retreat for inner-Melbourne, and home to more than 100 artists, writers, makers and creative practitioners and organisations; a place for all to enjoy, 365 days a year.