Let’s not forget the Scottish and English Magdalene Establishments

Let’s not forget the Scottish and English Magdalene Establishments

This week, Jo Thor (New College, Edinburgh) examines nineteenth century Magdalene Laundries and Asylums across the four nations.

It is well known that the scholarship of British history has been dominated for a long time by analysis and narrative of English history. This was very apparent to me when as an undergraduate and then a Master’s student I studied the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-69. The Acts’ aim was to curb the spread of venereal diseases among soldiers by making it a criminal offence for sex workers to infect their clients. It imposed regular gynaecological examinations on any woman suspected of selling sex which often led to false accusations, humiliation and social ostracism of arrested women. The Acts were introduced in sixteen garrison towns in England and two in Ireland.[i]This difference in the number of affected areas in England and Ireland naturally led scholars to focus on the English perspective of their history. This is understandable. However, due to this national bias, other interesting, and equally important, aspects of the history of prostitution, ‘fallen women’ and medical and police intervention in the life of mainly labouring women have been overlooked.

Even though the Acts were not introduced in Scotland, it does not mean that it did not have an impact on the country. Interestingly there existed Scottish groups campaigning against the Acts which were associated with the English Ladies’ and Men’s National Associations Against the CD Acts.[ii]They were motivated by the fear of introduction of the law in their nation and its effects on the Scottish soldiers serving in the British army. Analysis of the Scottish debate, or at least more widespread acknowledgement of its existence would greatly contribute to our understanding of the CD Acts and the debate surrounding prostitution in nineteenth-century Britain.

Alas, I did not have an opportunity to study the Scottish campaign in detail. However, it encouraged me to ask critical questions which consequently inspired my current PhD research. I wanted to understand how big towns in Scotland responded to the problems that the CD Acts tried to address. This is when I came across the Magdalene Asylums in nineteenth-century Scotland. To my great surprise, I discovered that there existed only one book on the topic. Yet it concentrated on Glasgow in the last three decades of the century and thus showed only a fragment of the Asylums’ rich story.[iii]

The Magdalene Asylums were houses of refuge or reformatories for ‘fallen women’. They had existed for centuries but in mid-eighteenth century the British Isles witnessed a new wave of them.[iv]The first one opened in London as the London Magdalene Hospital (1758), the second one in Dublin (1767) and twenty years later it was Edinburgh’s turn.[v]What is different about the research on Magdalene Establishments is that it is not Anglo-centric. Little is known about these institutions in England, Wales and Scotland, not because of lack of sources but due to a relative lack of interest in the subject. Ireland is the main focus of current scholarship on this topic.

This strong interest in Ireland’s Asylums had been stimulated by the controversies surrounding them and the consequent publicity in the late twentieth century. It is probable that the readers of this blog have heard about the Irish Magdalene Laundries, as they are often called, but were not even aware of the existence of the Magdalenes in the other countries. Catholic nuns of various religious orders ran most of the Irish institutions. The topic was brought to first national and then international prominence by numerous court cases between the Catholic Church, its orders and the victims of the abuse during the last couple of decades and the involvement of the Irish government and the United Nations in the legal processes. The Laundries became part of the public imagination under the influence of Peter Mullan’s famous Magdalene Sisters (2002). The film was based on a revealing documentary Sex in the Cold Climate (1998) that immediately caused controversy and led to a heated discussion. Even artists such as Joni Mitchell were inspired by the topic. In 1994 a song entitled “Magdalene Laundries” appeared in her new album and discussed the injustice experienced by the inmates. It is a good example how even the popular culture abroad was influenced by these terrifying discoveries. This portrayal of the institutions as pathological places, where sexual and mental abuse was unavoidable or even part of their nature, has become ingrained not only in popular imagination but also in academia.

Even though these institutions drifted in a sinister direction in the twentieth century, their origins need to be evaluated separately. I would argue that during their initial stages in the eighteenth and the beginning of nineteenth century they were on the whole positive institutions whose main concern was Christian charity and helping those on the fringes of society. Although we would nowadays reject the notion of a ‘fallen woman’ and many of the institutions’ values, we should not be guilty of anachronism and instead appreciate their intentions. My research is ongoing and so I may need to revise my statements but for now I believe that the asylums had benevolent and charitable character when they were first founded during that period. The application and reformatory period were voluntary and women could leave, at least in theory, before the completion of their ‘reformation’. Women who applied were given a chance to acquire new skills and were helped to get a job after their usually two-year residence. They also received religious education, which might be objectionable today, but was a sign of the philanthropists’ concern for each woman’s soul and her eternal life. Furthermore, they differed greatly depending on their location, period and the wide spectrum of Christian denomination to which they belonged and thus they should not be treated as uniform institutions. Our assessment of Magdalene Establishments needs to be subtler than it has been so far and look at their numerous variations throughout history.

The case of the CD Acts and Magdalene Establishments exemplifies how important it is study the history of all four nations (I apologise for not mentioning Wales often enough!). The history of the CD Acts and the campaign against them can never be comprehensive without asking questions about Scotland and Ireland. The history of Magdalene institutions will not be reliable without going back to their origins in the British Isles and remembering their variety and presence in all four nations. Researching almost only Irish history of the Asylums resulted in our seeing a distorted picture of them. This unavoidably results in missing something when approaching concepts such as religious reformation, attitudes towards sexuality and ‘deviance’ in the nineteenth century. Drawing more attention to Scotland, and in the case of this subject also England, will vastly change how we see the social work of various Christian denominations, Christian philanthropy of the period and its approach towards ‘fallen women’. Understanding the origins of the Magdalene Asylums in the British Isles will also help us to analyse the Irish Catholic institutions of the later period and be able to contextualise them more accurately.


[i] See: Judith R. Walkowitz. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980). 

[ii] Paul McHugh, Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform (London: Croom Helm, 1980), for example, 56, 156; For example: “Annual Meeting of the Scottish National Association,” The Shield 485 (19 July 1884), 124.

[iii] Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1990).

[iv] See to read more about the history of Magdalene Asylums: Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Women and Prostitution: A Social History. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1987).

[v] Frances Finnegan, Do Penance or Perish: Magdalen Asylums in Ireland. (Oxford: OUP 2004), 7.

Jo Thor is a second-year PhD candidate at New College, Edinburgh University where is funded by the School of Divinity. Her doctoral project is on the development of the Magdalene Establishments in Scotland during the long nineteenth century. It will be the first such study which provides 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 around 1914 when the politico-religious situation put an end to some of these institutions and completely transformed the others. Jo has also been the Convenor of the postgraduate community at New College since May 2017.


4 thoughts on “Let’s not forget the Scottish and English Magdalene Establishments

  1. Hello I found this article really interesting. I’m really interested in researching Magdalene Establishments in England, but I am really struggling to find primary sources related to this. Do you have any tips or a point in the right direction on how I could find or where to look for primary sources? Any help would be greatly appreciated

  2. Hi

    I hope you don’t mind me contacting you.

    I’ve just seen that my Grandmother was an “inmate” in a Magdalen Home on the 1921 census for England. It lists her birthplace as Ayr, Ayrshire but there’s no one with her name in Scottish records.

    The Magdalen Home was in Bury, Lancashire. Do you know how I can access the admission records for this place?

    Kind regards


  3. Hi Jo, I’m a graphic designer working with Archivists, and we’re developing resources to assist final year 2nd level history students in Ireland in choosing a topic for their research project. A comparative paper on the laundries would be really interesting. Is there any way would could access your PhD paper

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