“Come in, dear – you are not to be telling anybody what you have done. It’s nothing to be proud of, you know.” [Mother Rita’s] pencil thin lips signal how silent we are expected to be. The message is clear, you have a shocking past, sinful child, don’t be telling the other girls about your filthy history.
What have I done? There is no sympathy and no-one to talk to. If a girl complains to the nuns ‘I don’t want to be here’, she is promptly told, ‘we didn’t ask for you to come here either, you know’.
Maureen Cuskelly was sent to St Aiden’s Good Shepherd Convent in Bendigo in the 1960s, where she worked in the laundry and polished the floors, alongside a sketchy education via correspondence. Years later, her hands are arthritic and she can’t drive because the vibrations of the car are too much like the heavy floor polisher she worked with as a young girl.
Stena Keys spent her teenage years at the Good Shepherd Convent in Abbotsford, Melbourne, during the same decade. She says she can barely get around now, due to so much hard physical work when she was still growing. The nuns held a reunion in 2013, and Stena took part in a boycott of the event, which she believed should have been an apology, not a celebration.
The convent is now one of Melbourne’s tourist attractions, which hosts musical performances and a slow food farmers market. The former laundries are being transformed into a cultural space.
Magdalene laundries are most notoriously associated with Ireland, largely due to the film The Magdalene Sisters, the 1993 discovery of a mass grave and the formal state apology given in 2013 by the Irish government. A compensation scheme was set up to which the convents, allegedly very wealthy, have declined to contribute. The last Irish laundry closed in 1996 – when Riverdance burst onto the Eurovision stage in 1994, there were still women living and working in a convent laundry.
Unidentified Magdalen Laundry in Ireland, early 20th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
The first institution of this kind was in fact English – the Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes was established in London in 1758. Similar ‘asylums’ sprang up across England, Ireland, Scotland and the colonies in North America and the Antipodes. Until the 1970s, institutional care was the norm for the mentally ill, orphaned or illegitimate children, unwed mothers. In the absence of government support, churches and religious organisations took the initiative to set up homes for groups of people which they believed to be in ‘moral danger’ or in need of charity. Many of these institutions were no doubt begun with good intentions, but for the residents the reality was often a life of hard work, deprivation and abuse.
In Canada, Magdalene laundries were established in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Social researcher Rie Croll, from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, collected stories about women in Canadian Magdalene laundries. A woman known only as Delcina was kept at a New Brunswick laundry for 14 years until poor health prevented her from working. She was released onto the street and died in destitution. “While the stated purpose of these institutions was the reform of prostitutes, unwed mothers, and ‘incorrigible’ girls, the stories I’ve gathered tell us that the inmate population contained countless unwanted, stolen, socially inconvenient, disregarded and/or neglected girls and women”, says Dr Croll.
Canada’s most famous fictional orphan spent a miserable childhood being passed from orphanage to foster home for unpaid childcare work, before having the remarkable good fortune to end up in a happy home. Most real children of the time in similar circumstances would not have been so lucky.
Illustration from the 1909 edition of Anne of Green Gables. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Australian laundries were run by the Order of the Good Shepherd, with the Abbotsford Convent being their largest establishment. Writing in the Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, James Franklin observes that laundry work was regarded as suitable because it did not need much training and could make money without great capital expense. Additionally, the women and girls who worked there were forced into the strict regime of poverty, chastity and obedience that the nuns had chosen voluntarily and believed was for the good of the soul.
Photo: Abbotsford Convent… by Attila Siha via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
On the website of the Abbotsford convent, the unpaid work and lack of education is admitted, but they emphasise the fact that the Sisters worked alongside the women they were ‘caring’ for, also without pay, in order to fund other charitable ventures. This comes very close to an attempt at justification. Despite the fact that many women there would otherwise have been on the streets, and that many girls came from abusive homes, the extreme imbalance of power and lack of accountability cannot be denied and there is no excuse for abuse or forced child labour. In the words of the Forgotten Australians report (section 5.53), “The response that times were different and that standards and people’s thinking and understanding of children’s needs have changed, fails to explain or recognise the severity of the documented behaviours.”
Commercial laundries were not happy with the religious institutions’ cheap prices, which they were able to charge since they did not pay their workers. In 1902 the Laundrymens’ Association brought a complaint about this to the Trades’ Hall in Melbourne, then considering the Factories’ Act, urging them to bring all laundries in line with the Act. (The Age, 26th March 1902). These included the Salvation Army laundry and the interdenominational Carlton Refuge.
The Laundry Proprietors’ Association took a number of Sydney laundries to the Industrial Court in 1909, for breaching the laundry wages board award. The charity laundries were exempt from the award on the condition that they only did the laundry belonging to their own residents. (The Watchman, 7th October 1909).
The Freeman’s Journal (Sydney) 4th May 1889 – describing the Magdalene Laundry in Tempe. The newspaper is now published under the title “The Catholic Weekly”
Changing social attitudes towards unmarried mothers, as well as the introduction of the ‘single mother’s benefit’ in 1973 meant that more single mothers were able to care for their own children. Social welfare practices have changed dramatically, influencing faith-based charities, and there is greater regulatory control and stricter record-keeping requirements.