Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent complex has officially become the 111th property to be added to Australia’s National Heritage List.
The sprawling site in Melbourne’s inner-north holds the title of the largest multidisciplinary arts precinct in the country. The complex – a 16-acre site that comprises the 1901-built brick Sister’s Convent, 11 historic buildings, gardens, courtyards and a working farm – regularly holds arts and culture events, such as live music, farmer’s markets, exhibitions and festivals.
According to the Victorian Heritage Register, on which it has been listed since 2000, Abbotsford Convent is “historically significant as the only existing former monastic or convent farm surviving in a substantial manner within a city in Australia. It is the site of the largest self-sufficient convent and monastic building and farm complex in the state.” It is also significant for its charitable history, as “the birthplace in Australia of the Good Shepherd Order, one of the most important religious institutional complex within the Catholic Church in Victoria, which provided for the refuge and care of thousands of women and girls through a variety of welfare, rehabilitation and protection programs during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
Although the Sister’s Convent building is at the cultural heart of the complex, the site’s industrial laundry buildings held particular sway on the National Heritage Trust’s decision to list Abbotsford Convent. Previously functioning as a workhouse for “fallen women” – a term which covered everything from prostitution to orphans – the Magdalene laundry and its sister buildings were seen to “[reflect] the social attitudes of the time and [act] as a reference point in the evolution of child welfare and juvenile justice practices in Australia”.
“The Convent laundry buildings are an important physical record for those Australians and their families known collectively as the Forgotten Australians,” reads the statement.
By the end of the twentieth century, Abbotsford Convent was home to 1,000 people, making it the largest charitable organisation in the Southern Hemisphere at the time. Currently home to more than 100 studios as well as galleries, cafes and a radio station, the site now plays a significant role in the preservation and support of the arts in Melbourne.