We respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri of the Kulin Federation as the traditional owners of the Abbotsford Precinct Heritage Farmlands, the lands we respect, care for and farm on behalf of all Victorians. The Farm thanks all Wurundjeri Elders past and present, for their guardianship of these lands.
Geological processes have changed the course of the Yarra River many times. Following uplift of the region five million years ago, the Yarra River flowed through a wide mudstone and siltstone valley north of the Farm between Kew and Northcote.
About 2.2 million years ago lava flowed down the Merri Creek valley and about 800,000 years ago lava filled the Darebin Creek valley. The Merri and Darebin Creeks re-established their flows across the basalt (cooled lava) but the Yarra River was blocked, creating a lake and floodplain upstream of Kew.
The outflow of the lake cut through the mudstone, following the edges of the basalt ‘fingers’. This created cliffs in the mudstone and gave the river its present winding course. The river carried rich silts from the erosion of the mudstones and the basalt plains. Floods deposited these silts on the insides of the river bends to form floodplains with soils that support a wide variety of plants.
The River Corridor
A corridor of bush grows along the Yarra. The river red gums, silver wattles and manna gums thrive on the supply of water. They provide shelter for brushtail possums, bats and irregular visitors such as the azure kingfisher and the swift parrot.
The paperbarks, teatrees and bottlebrushes are homes for small bushbirds such as bellbirds. Skinks, geckoes, lizards, copperhead snakes and frogs shelter amongst the ground cover, which includes original tussock grass.
The river itself is home to rare fish species: graylings, mudfish, lampreys, galaxias and bass. water rats and the occasional platypus live in deep water at the foot of the steep cliffs.
Four of the Kulin nation tribes inhabit the Port Phillip Bay region. The Wurundjeri tribe hunted animals and gathered plant food in the open woodlands of their traditional land, the valley of the Yarra River.
Downstream of the Merri Creek and Yarra River junction is Dights Falls, a basalt rock bar where crossing the river was possible. The Kulin nation held corroborees nearby, exchanging goods and conducting ceremonies such as marriages. Their menu included local game, fish and plant tubers.
The Merri Creek and Yarra River junction is still an important area for Indigenous people; it is a traditional burial ground, and near the junction an Aboriginal school and mission operated for a short time.
European Settlement: Change for Good and not so good
In the 1840s, on riverside ‘allotments’ here, Edward Curr built a house called St Heliers and the Orr family built Abbotsford House. John Dight operated a water powered flour mill adjacent to Dight’s Falls.
Soon, noxious industries proliferated downstream of the falls. Tanneries, wool mills and a glass factory were erected on the hard basalt rock in Collingwood. Workers cleaned the tallow off hides on our river edge, at the end of St Heliers Street, which originally finished at the river.
In 1857, an agent’s advertisement described these allotments as “gardens of delight where woods and valleys, orchards and meadows present a thousand beauties”. The 1857 house next to the Farm’s St Heliers Street entrance is the oldest Collingwood house overlooking the river. At one time, workers from the Melbourne Wax Museum made wax models in this house.
At the new Johnston Street bridge, carriers illicitly dumped the bulk of Fitzroy’s ‘night soil’ into the river, which was described as a “flowing manure depot”.
Day trippers to Yarra Bend Park in the 1880s came by cable tram to the Johnston Street bridge terminus. Later they came by river ferry to Dights Falls, passing the site of this Farm en-route, then climbing the hill into the park.
THE SISTERS OF GOOD SHEPHERD AND THE ABBOTTSFORD CONVENT
Bringing ‘Lost Sheep’ Back to the Fold
Between 1863 and 1865, the nuns of the Order of the Good Shepherd purchased the St Heliers and Abbotsford House properties. The work of the French order was to bring “lost sheep back to the fold – women and girls in need of rescue and reformation”. The nuns selected an isolated place that could house and feed many people. By 1865 seventy penitents lived in the reformatory and worked in the vegetable gardens, pastures and orchards. Over the years a convent, chapel, asylum, industrial school, reformatory and day school were built to accommodate the nuns, novices, penitents and children.
The huge Convent provided shelter for orphans, the infirm and the sick. At one time there were as many as a thousand inhabitants within its walls, most of whom dined on produce grown on the properties. The penitents operated a commercial laundry, which provided income for Convent purchases.
Because of the risk of flooding, the river flats were only used to graze cattle and grow lucerne and maize. The main pathway to the grazing paddocks, known as ‘the laneway’ was laid out by 1880. The Farm barn was built in the early 1900s.
In the Convent’s first 50 years, 8,236 people either lived, worked or went to school here.
REFORM TO THE REFORMING OF CHILDREN
Institutional care underwent major reforms in the 1960s and 1970s with needy children being placed in foster care homes in the wider community. In 1974 the Convent closed down. The Victorian Government purchased the property for use by a tertiary education institution. Market gardeners leased the farmland and grew vegetables and carnations. The cost of refurbishing the Convent complex resulted in its sale to private developers in 1997. Community concern has led to the preservation of the Convent and the land.
Collingwood Children’s Farm!
In 1979, a community committee, with support from the former Collingwood City Council, leased a small area of the Convent for a Children’s Farm. The Committee hoped children living in an urban environment, often without backyards, could learn to care for animals and nature and also have fun outdoors. Local schools and other groups helped with fencing, gardening and animal care. Members of the Greek Elderly Citizens and the Turkish Welfare Group helped clear weeds and carve out the community plots.
Since the 1980s, State and Local governments have funded some of the Farm’s costs. State and Federal Labour governments supported our successful bid for a much larger area of land. Now the Collingwood Children’s Farm Committee of Management manages this Crown land site. Service clubs and philanthropic trusts help the Farm, but the largest part of our operational costs always comes from entry fees, donations and through the work of volunteers.
Sustainable Farming and Environmental Practices
The philosophies of permaculture, Landcare and organic farming guide what we do here.
Zones of Activity
We have created a number of zones of activity at the Farm. The links between the activities are important. An example is the orchard which is downhill from the duck yard. The water from the duck pond flows first into a drain lined with reeds that filter the nutrients. It then passes down the slope through underground pipes and is distributed throughout the orchard to fertilize the trees and produce good quality fruit. Most of the fruit is sold or used in food prepared for our family days. The fallen fruit is cleaned up by the chooks and ducks. This reduces the carryover of pests and diseases to the new season’s fruit. The manure from these birds is quickly taken up by the plants growing under the trees.
In the times of the Convent, the layout of the Farm was different. At one stage more than thirty cows grazed along the riverbank. Today we have fewer animals and concentrate on vegetable and fruit crops, as well as growing food for our animals. Using natural ways, we are working towards building up the richness and vitality of soil that has been heavily farmed for years.
Tree Crops and Habitat
Today, farmers and community groups plant trees on riverbanks and in plots to provide habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife. Our tallest trees, planted in the 1980s, have attracted more birds. They eat some of our crops but they also help control insect pests – a good arrangement overall. As well as shelter and wildlife habitat, some of the tree plantings have other purposes – shelter, shade, animal fodder, timber, erosion control and nutrient uptake, and of course nuts and fruit.
There is plenty of work at the Farm for lots of people. Volunteers, staff and young people work together to maintain the Farm. There are always plans for improvements when money and labour become available. The community spirit that this teamwork engenders is a product we value highly. Join in and get your hands dirty!