Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Magdalen Hospital

In the effort to better their society, the English instated many state-of-the-art improvements which showed an honest interest in helping society. On the coattails of the Foundling Hospital the Magdalen Hospital was founded in 1758 with the aim of 'curing' prostitutes.

Magdalen hospitals were not a new or English concept. These hospitals had been developed by Catholics in other countries hence being named after the famous reformed prostitute from the Bible. When the London Magdalen Hospital was founded it was created with the aim of giving young women a better life, knowing that prostitution was a last resort in a society with not many opportunities for women.

The establishment was run as more of a rehabilitation center. The penitent prostitutes entered into the hospital and were taught decorum and cleanliness and then given an education. Good behavior and improvement were rewarded with being moved to different wards and then being allowed more independence. Basically, the women were trained to make a living without having to whore themselves. The Magdalen Hospital was like a My Fair Lady factory: slob streetwalker goes in, civilized citizen walks out. There were even punishments for swearing - 6 hours confinement to your room or more with repeated offense. I have a feeling I would have spent a lot of solitary hours if I was a patient!

The hospital was deemed a success which helped in not having to scrounge for charitable contributions. In fact, society was so enamored with the enlightened idea of a penitent prostitute hospital was there was plenty of money pouring in. The chapel collections even drew in more money than the Foundling Hospital. I blame that on the spectacle. Why donate to orphan children when there are reformed whores singing hymns?

Thousands of wayward girls entered the hospital through the years. Soon, some of the patients were just girls who needed a head start and hadn't actually sold their body. Why not? The hospital trained you to start and honest living, out a roof over your head, and fed you.

Although we could never tell you if the hospital was a true success in its ability to rehabilitate, its heart was in the right place. It didn't punish prostitution but gave women a safer alternative to their original career path. Over the years the hospital expanded and changed. Its original location was by Blackfriars Bridge but it was moved to Streatham in 1866. By the 1930s the hospital was transformed into a school for 'juvie' girls. In 1966 what remained of the hospital closed for good with the original 18th century mission having long been forgotten. Although nothing remains of the site today you can still walk down the Magdalen Passage, an alleyway which lays on where the Magdalen Hospital foundation used to be.


  1. How sad that the Magdalen institutions in Ireland were utterly cruel and penal, by contrast. From the mid-19th century until the last of them closed in the 1980's, Ireland's Magdalen laundries imprisoned without trial girls and women who were sexually active outside of marriage, or in some cases just looked pretty and were deemed to pose a temptation to men. These inmates were forced into backbreaking work without pay, for decades, and had no prospect of release unless family members interceded for them. Those who bore children (these places functioned as unwed mothers' "homes" too) had their babies taken away from them, often for adoption in the US. These women could expect to die in these horrible places; those who did were generally buried in unmarked graves.

  2. Thanks for another well-researched post. I've received the lovely Versatile Blogger Award from Dreamstress on my blog, Amphorae, and I would like to pass it on to you. I look forward every day to your new posts.

  3. MaRY O'Grady I've heard of the insanity and cruelty of Magdalen institutions in Ireland, in fact I've seen a movie about it, but I just can't remember its name... Has some heard of it?

  4. I think the movie was The Magdelene Sister, and I would recommend it! It shows you just how bad (and ridiculous) some of the things Mary describes were for these poor women.

    The Chieftans also have a song with Annie Lennox I believe about it, which is quite beautiful.

    @Comtesse, Thank you!!

  5. Fascinating. I had know idea these existed. I am so happy I came across your blog.