Magdalene Establishments in nineteenth-century Edinburgh

Jo Thor is a second-year PhD candidate at New College, Edinburgh University. She is funded by Edinburgh’s School of Divinity. Jo’s doctoral project is on the development of the Magdalene Establishments in Scotland during the long nineteenth century. It will be the first such study providing a general overview of the locations, timeline and character of these institutions. It will analyse how their relationship with the state, police and hospitals had changed from their re-emergence at the end of 18th century till the end of the long 19th century when the politico-religious situation put an end to some of these institutions and completely transformed the others. If you are interested in her research you can find her on Twitter @JowitaAThor.

When I mention Magdalene Asylums as my research topic I usually encounter two reactions. It is either a blank expression followed up by the question ‘What are they?’; or a comment on the Irish Magdalene Laundries, which were made famous by films, documentaries, court cases and memoirs of survivors. Surprisingly, the first reaction is a rather accurate reflection of our current knowledge on the nineteenth-century Magdalene Establishments in Scotland. Unfortunately, due to the richness of scholarship on the Irish Laundries and the sensational character of their history, an assumption is made that the asylums in a neighbouring country must have been similar: pathological, hellish places. This is not, however, supported by careful research. Especially problematic is the perception that the asylums had always had the same character. In fact, they had significantly transformed from their revival in the first half of the 19th century until the closure of the last asylum in the British Isles in 1996. Furthermore, they should not be perceived as an isolated phenomenon of the last two or three centuries but a form of Christian charity that had existed since ancient times, although in many different forms.

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Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

As far as we know, the history of Magdalene Asylums started in the sixth century with Empress Theodora’s convent, called Metanoia. Her decision was prompted by her desire to help victims of human traffickers who enslaved girls from poor families as sex workers. In line with Christian doctrine surrounding prostitution and sin, her rescue home was also a place of repentance, as the meaning of the Greek name suggests. According to historian Procopius over five hundred women found refuge there during the Empress’s life. Similar institutions were founded in the Christian world throughout its history; in various parts of the ancient world and medieval Europe.[1] Rebecca McCarthy’s Origins of the Magdalene Laundries presents an analysis of how economic and political factors contributed to the spreading of Magdalene Asylums throughout European history.[2] It reminds us about the long history of these institutions and the importance of seeing the later British asylums as continuation rather than an anomaly suddenly emerging in the nineteenth century. They should not be imagined as uniform in goals and management; rather they were part of a tradition of institutions linked together by their Christian doctrine of salvation and aim of providing help and refuge to former prostitutes and other ‘fallen’ women.

In the British Isles the Magdalene revival was triggered by the London Magdalene Hospital founded in 1758. The Dublin Magdalene Asylum was opened nine years later.Edinburgh was the third city within the British Isles to have a Magdalene Asylum.[3] It began its history in 1797 as the Philanthropic Society of Edinburgh, which worked on re-socialisation of former prisoners. At first there were just a couple of women under its care, who were hosted by Edinburgh families. Within months though the Society decided to place all women in a Home to exercise more control over them, thus reforming them more effectively. The Asylum quickly developed into a typical reformatory where the inmates slept, worked and received religious education.[4]

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Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum, however, was not the only Magdalene Establishment in Scotland’s capital. The widely-held misconception is that a town had only one such Asylum, and that it held a local monopoly over incarceration of women who had deviated from accepted sexual or moral norms. This fits into the narrative, mentioned above, of perceiving these institutions as highly oppressive and suddenly emerging in Britain around the nineteenth century. In reality, the major Scottish cities had a selection of Magdalenes. In Edinburgh there were at least four, but probably more, of them: the Female Shelter, the Alnwick Hill Reformatory, St Andrew’s Home of Mercy, the Rescue and Probationary Home. The Salvation Army might also have its own Magdalene Home.

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The Scotsman, 1864, Central Library, Edinburgh

The Female Shelter and the Rescue Home, discussed by The Scotsman in October 1864, are good examples of the variety of the asylums’ aims and character. The Shelter was founded in association with the ‘Scottish Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of the Destitute of their Own Sex in Prisons and other Institutions’. It was designed for girls and women, aged usually between 14 and 38, who had just left ‘prison, the Lock Hospital, House of Refuge, &c.’.[5] Indeed, one third of the inmates came straight from jail. It offered laundry and sewing services to the public which, together with other household duties, were part of its programme of reformation and preparation for an independent life. The Shelter’s inmates stayed there typically for two years but that, as in other institutions, could vary depending on individual needs. No more than 35 inmates could board there at the same time but the institution was often not fully occupied. At the time of the visit of The Scotsman’s reporter, there were only 25 girls, which indicates an intimate atmosphere where a new inmate quickly got to know all members of the community. The women were free to leave at their own desire, although a lot of effort was put into dissuading them from doing so. Before departure they had to go through talks with the matron and the ladies’ committee. The girls were allowed to see their friends and family once a month in the presence of the matron who also had read their letters before they were sent or received. All women attended Greyfriars Free Church, including the Catholic inmates, who had to accept the Protestant ethos of the reformatory. All women were assisted with finding a job or being reunited with their families upon completing the programme.

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The Scotsman, 1864, Central Library, Edinburgh

The Rescue Home, founded in 1861, was a different kind of a Magdalene Establishment. It appeared amid religious upheaval of the time and attracted women who had converted, temporarily or permanently, at midnight meetings. The Rescue was designed as the ‘first place of recourse’, a temporary shelter for a couple of days or weeks at most. It occupied a small building and its goal was to be a small, welcoming institution where only eight inmates could lodge. It was supposed to be a place of short rest, relief and strengthening of new religious resolutions. The goal was to quickly reconcile the lodgers with their families and friends and not send them to another Magdalene Establishment. This small institution proved so popular among young women that it received more applicants than it could handle. Whenever it was necessary, beds were put in the kitchen to accommodate two additional lodgers and gradually many women from the Rescue had to be recommended to other establishments. During the first four years of its existence they received around 320 women. The Scotsman argued that this popularity was also caused by lack of space in other institutions to which these women might have unsuccessfully applied.

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The Scotsman, 1864, Central Library, Edinburgh

This comment suggests that there were many women who actively sought refuge in Magdalene Establishments. If they did not receive help in one of them, they went elsewhere. If they were aware of the differences between the institutions they could choose which one suited them best. According to newspaper articles and the institutions’ accounts most women went there alone, accompanied neither by family members nor any kind of religious or legal functionaries. This indicates that in many, if not in all, cases, these were truly voluntary applications. The Scotsman reporter also pointed out to the abuse of the system due to a very limited communication between these institutions. Many women stayed a couple of weeks or months at each institution and left whenever it was convenient for them. If so, women were not incarcerated in the asylums against their will but could exercise their freedom, even if pressure was put on them to stay longer. If some women entered a couple of institutions, they probably felt safe and were convinced that no one would keep them there by force.

Magdalene Establishments in nineteenth-century Scotland paint a rich picture of institutions whose methods and focus varied. They were not all the same and just like other institutions they developed in response to society’s expectations, religious and political changes and their financial situation. Although the later history of Magdalene Asylums became ghastly, the origins of these institutions seem to be of benevolent kind based on Christian desire to help the ‘fallen’. This should be appreciated even if it does not reflect our modern ideals of morality and social work.

– Jo Thor

[1] Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Women and Prostitution: A Social History. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1987), 111, 129-30.

[2] Rebecca Lea McCarthy. Origins of the Magdalene Laundries: An Analytical History (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010).

[3] Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. (Oxford: OUP 2004), 8.

[4] David Black, A Sermon preached before the Philanthropic Society, in St. Andrew’s Church; Appendix (Edinburgh: John Brown, 1798), 39.

[5] The Charitable Institution of Edinburgh: A Series of Articles in The Scotsman (October 1864), 91. Scrapbook. Edinburgh Central Library. Henceforth all references come from here pp. 86 – 99.

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