Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes

'to provide for women and girls on the streets a safe, desirable, and happy retreat from their wretched and distressful circumstances'

Many 'Magdalens' - homes for reformed prostitutes - were established in France and other Catholic countries throughout the middle ages. The name came from the identification (now known to be false and misleading) of the 'sinner' of Luke 7.37, who extravagently washed and anointed Jesus' feet, with Mary Magdalene.

The first English, non-Catholic, version was established in (Great) Prescot Street in 1758, with a 7-year lease on the commodious house vacated by the London Hospital, which provided space, aire and privacy at a modest expence. Today, the narrow Magdalen Passage [sign left] runs through its former site. Six penitents were admitted on the first day; by 1769, 1,500 had passed through its doors, most having stayed for three years - it was judged a success, and had little difficulty in raising funds. Typical collections from chapel visitors were well over £1,000, whereas even the Foundling Hospital could only raise £160.


Why was it set up, and why did it flourish? The motives were, frankly, somewhat mixed, and some seem questionable today:
* Jonas Hanway (1712-86) also took up the cause of chimney-sweepers, with books and pamphlets including The state of chimney-sweepers young apprentices shewing the wretched condition of these distrest boys (1773); The state of master chimney-sweepers, and their journeymen particularly of the distressed boys, apprentices, who are daily seen in the streets of these cities staggering under a load of misery with a proposal for their relief (Sewell 1779); A sentimental history of chimney sweepers, in London & Westminster shewing the necessity of putting them under regulations, to prevent the grossest inhumanity to the climbing boys (Dodsley & Sewell 1785); he also produced A comprehensive view of Sunday schools, for the use of the more indigent inhabitants of cities, towns, and villages, through England and Wales, with reflections on the causes of the decay of our morals and national piety, and the means of removing them: also a copious school book, for the use of Sunday scholars (Dodsley & Sewell 1786). He was, incidentally, the first person to carry a 'hanway', later known as an umbrella, in the streets of London, for which he was much mocked [right]: stick-making' (umbrella frames) later became a local, primarily Jewish, trade. Joseph Reed (1723-87) published a pamphlet A rope's-end for hempen monopolists, or, A dialogue between a broker, a rope-maker, and the ghost of Jonas Hanway, Esquire, in which are represented the pernicious effects of the rise in the price of hemp (J. Sewell 1786).

The mix of motives can be seen in Robert Dingley's opening speech in 1758:
Humanity in its utmost efforts pleads their cause more powerfully than anything I can offer on the subject; and I appeal to every mind, from its own experience, if there can be greater Objects of Compassion, than poor, young, thoughtless Females, plunged into ruin by those temptations to which their very youth and personal advantages exposes them, no less than those passions implanted by nature.... and by those endowed with superior faculties, and all the advantages of Education and fotune, what virtue can be proof against such formidable Seducers, who offer too commonly, and too profusely promise to transport the thoughtless Girls from Want, Confinement and Restraint of Passions, to Luxury, Liberty, Gaiety, Joy.

It can also be seen in the emotional sermons preached by the first chaplain, William Dodd - using the inmates, who were behind a lattice but in view of the visitors, as instruments of the rhetoric of pathos:
Lost to Virtue, you were lost to yourselves....Whither could you have fled from anguish, and from woe unutterable, cut off in the very blossom of your sins? early sacrifices, young and unpitied offerings to the remorseless Grave?.... 'Tis too affecting the review: I urge no more: only let your conversation be as becometh this great redemption: only labour to shew yourselves sensible of the exquisite blessings vouchsafed you....Here, saved from the threatening storm, you may look back and contemplate your danger, the more to inspire you with gratitude and praise.

The result was that visiting the Magdalen Hospital became a popular spectator sport, with elements of theatre: the inmates were showed as a sight, and the East End setting enhanced the thrill. As Walpole wrote to a friend, describing a visit at which Prince Edward was also present:
This new convent is beyond Goodman's Fields, and I assure you would content any Catholic alive. The chapel is small and low, but neat, hung with Gothic paper and tablets of benefactions. At the west end were inclosed the sisterhood, above an hundred and thirty, all in greyish brown stuffs, broad handkerchiefs, and flat straw hats with a ribband pulled quite over their faces. As soon as we entered the chapel, the organ played, and the Magdalens sang a hymn in parts; you cannot imagine how well. The chapel was dressed with orange and myrtle, and there wanted nothing but a little incense, to drive away the devil - or to invite him. Prayers then began, psalms, and a sermon; the latter by a young clergyman, one Dodd; who contributed to the Popish idea one had imbibed by haranging entirely in the French style, and very eloquently and touchingly. He apostrophised the lost sheep, who sobbed and cried from their souls - so did my Lady Hertford and Fanny Pelham, till I believe the City dames took them both for Jane Shores*.

* Elizabeth 'Jane' Shore was one of the chief mistreses of Edward IV in the latter part of the 15th century - there was a Jane Shore Alley in Shoreditch. Is this also an early example of rhyming slang?

Although deliberately called a 'hospital' because of the conviction that its regime was therapeutic, there were also overtones of the nunnery, in the way every detail was organised: anonymous and drab clothing, strict rules about demeanour, conversation and surveillance (tell your story to no one), diet, daily work and worship. Wooden blinds covered the windows to stop prying eyes. Much of this anticipated 19th century prison design and routine. Pictured is the frontispiece from Jonas Hanway's Thoughts on the Plan for a Magdalen House (1758) showing his ideals: note the rules on the wall, the spinning wheel, the open bible....

During its time in Prescot Street, ideas for a larger venue were clarified, which was built in 1769 (opening in 1772) at St George's Fields, Southwark - made accessible by the building of Blackfriars Bridge, though the move away from the East End lessened its popular appeal and ability to raise funds. Here there was an octagonal chapel, with a choir of inmates who sang behind a screen, the mystery of unseen voices appealing to the fashionable congregation. The organists (sometimes called 'organesses') were all female; they included Ann Stainer, Sir John Stainer's sister, who never missed a Sunday in fifty years from 1849-99. (See further José Hopkins in the British Institute of Organ Studies Reporter 36:3, July 2012.) The hospital moved in 1866 to Streatham (its main income now coming from laundry work). In 1934 it became an approved school - four years later 'for the reception of Penitent Prostitutes' was dropped from its title - and in 1944 the Classifying School for assessing girls from across the south of England referred by juvenile courts; closed in 1966, the site was developed for housing by Lambeth Council. An ongoing Trust was set up in 1973 for the welfare of girls and boys up to the age of 25.

When Fr Joe Williamson set up Church House, Wellclose Square in the late 1950s for work with prostitutes, did he realise that just a few hundred yards away had been an 18th century expression of his 'rescue work', and in the Square itself a 19th century version under 'Bo'sun' Smith?

The Magdalen Hospital has been extensively written about, because of its significance for 18th century views of women. The standard histories are H.F.B. Compston The Magdalen Hospital (SPCK 1917) and S.B.P. Pearce (the institution's chaplain) An Ideal in the Working (1958); see also James Stephen Taylor Penitent Prostitutes, Ann Jessie van Sant Eighteenth-century Sensibility and the Novel (2004), Miles Ogbourn Spaces of Modernity (1998), and Elizabeth Eger Women, Writing and the Public Sphere, 1700-1830 (2001). Dan Cruickshank's Secret History of Georgian London (Random House 2009) includes a section on the Magdalen Hospital (pages 276-299).

Hanway was also the motive force in founding the short-lived Misericordia Hospital, for treating venereal diseases, in 1774. Herbert Jones preached an opening sermon before the its governors at St Andrew Holborn, and Dodd a year or so later at St Stephen Walbrook. In 1780 Hanway published An Account of the Misericordia Hospital for the Cure in indigent Persons, involved in the Miseries occasioned by promiscuous Commerce, with Moral and Religious Advise to the Patients, describing it as devoted to the relief of the eastern parts of these vast cities. It was either in Great Alie Street, or possibly in the buildings vacated by the Magdalen, and was run on similar lines as the Magdalen, as a 'total institution' combining the moral and the medical. Dr William Grant was its physician; he published treatises on the London fevers - and died of an infection caught from a patient.
See Michael Ignatieff A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 (Macmillan 1978), Michel Foucault Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (English translation Vintage, NY, 1978).

The Mac(c)aroni Parson
The Revd William Dodd preached the inaugural sermon at the opening of the Magdalen Hospital, and was retained as its chaplain at £100 a year - money he needed, for he had developed a lavish lifestyle: in his own rather ridiculous words, he was a zealous votary of the god of Dancing. He was a popular and emotional society preacher, both at the Magdalen and elsewhere. However, he does appear to have had a genuine and lasting concern for the welfare of the residents, and certainly enabled the institution to raise funds.

Macaroni was an 18th century term for an extravagantly fashionable, foppish young man, from the Italian maccerone (a boorish fool) - hence the line in Yankee Doodle Dandy: he stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni. See above right for an explanation of 1772, from the Town and Country Magazine (page 243).

His debts became so great that, foolishly, he forged a bond. This was a capital offence, and he was tried and sentenced to hang in 1777. Samuel Johnson was among the many who pleaded for clemency - and it was in relation to Dodd that he made his famous remark Depend upon it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. But to no avail.

Dodd published several works, including a novel The Sisters (1754) and a long poem in blank verse Thoughts in Prison, written in Newgate before his execution. See Gerald Howson The Macaroni Parson: A Life of the Unfortunate Dr. Dodd (1973).

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