So you’ve sinned and need rehabilitation in eighteenth-century London; where would you go? Well, that was easy, you applied to The Magdalen hospital in London. The hospital was established by laymen rather than the clergy, in particular a Robert Dingley (*see end of article for more information) who, with a committee including Rev. William Dodd, referred to it as a hospital but who insisted that it be more akin to a home.
It was to be a safe place for girls and women in eighteenth-century London (similar hospitals were sent up around the world too) where they could be rehabilitated and resume a good and honest life.
The first general meeting to discuss setting up such a place took place on the 1st of June 1758 and it was agreed that:
There was to be a ‘superiority of ward, the lower wards to take ‘inferior person’ or those ‘degraded for misbehaviour’. The women might be promoted to higher wards.
The matron was to inspect the inmates’ correspondence.
Inmates were to be known by their Christian names alone. If further differentiation were needed, the name of the ward, or a number, should be added.
Various kinds of employment were suggested
We then have the most poignant sentence at the end:
… always observing in this and every other circumstance the utmost care and delicacy, humanity and tenderness; so that this establishment, instead of being apprehended to be a house of correction, may be gladly embraced as a safe, desirable and happy retreat from their wretched and distressful circumstances.
It took very little time to raise the funds required and secure appropriate premises. Staff were duly appointed.
The first admission was Ann Blore, a native of Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Two other women were promised admission as soon as they were cured of disease. One was admitted as servant to the matron and Mary Truman was rejected as she wasn’t a prostitute. Admissions day was the first Thursday of the month at 5pm and women were not permitted to be either pregnant or suffering from any disease.
The house was divided into parts in order to make total and distinct divisions of the objects, and the rooms were distinguished by being numbered. The women were classed in each ward. A proper number of women were appointed to perform all the domestic business of their respective wards and the household and to keep the chapel clean. Each woman lay in a separate bed and had a box for her clothes and linen, under lock and key which was kept by herself. Strict regard was had by the matron and her assistants to ensure that the wards were kept completely ventilated and the air pure – they visited the chambers and working rooms frequently each day to ensure this. Friends or relations of the women could apply to visit and visits were held under the supervision of the matron.
Upon admission their clothes are taken from them and returned to them when they leave. They are issued with grey shalloon gowns, all women worn the same ‘uniform’. Their diet/meals were agreed by the overseeing committee with a copy of the meals being hung on a board in each ward.
All women are actively employed in tasks suiting their ability predominantly sewing, any occupation that will aid employment when they leave.
From Lady-day to Michaelmas they rise at six and go to bed at ten; and from Michaelmas to Lady-day rise at seven and in bed at nine; and after that time no fire of candle are allowed, except in the sick ward.
Breakfast was taken at 9 o’clock and they were allowed half an hour, they dined at one o’clock and were allowed one hour, and left off work at six in the winter and seven in the summer.
The hospital had opened on 10th August 1758 and by its 10th anniversary, some 1,036 women had been admitted.
509 had been reconciled to and received by their friends or placed in services in reputable families and to trades
38 proved lunatics, and afflicted with incurable fits
150 were uneasy under restraint and dismissed at their own desire
37 never returned from hospitals, to which they were sent to be cured
201 were discharged for faults and irregularities
73 were still present
Did this method of reform work? Well seemingly so, if you believe the statistics, it did. To correct and to train rather than to punish seemed to be the order of the day. The hospital adapted to change over the years and finally closed its doors in 1966.
For anyone wishing to find out more about the Magdalene laundries in Ireland which were set up a few years after the one in London, you may find wish to follow the link here.
* More about Robert Dingley
Robert Dingley was born around 1710, the eldest surviving son of Susanna and Robert Dingley, a prosperous jeweller and goldsmith of Bishopsgate Street, London. Robert took a keen interest in the arts and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also founder member of the Society of Dilettanti, held a lifelong career with the Russia Company and was also Director of the Bank of England and trustee at the Foundling home.
On December 30th, 1744 Robert married Elizabeth Thomson, daughter of Henry Thomson Esq, of Kirby Hall, Yorkshire.
Elizabeth was to die in 1759 and Robert married his second wife, Esther Spencer the following year, on 21st March 1760. Esther died 1784.
Robert died 1781 and there is a memorial for both Robert and Esther in the same church.
They had a daughter, Susanna Cecilia (1743–1795) of Lamb Abbey, near Eltham, Kent, who married Richard Hoare (d.1778) of Boreham House, Essex, a partner in Hoare’s bank, in 1762.
The couple had five children, and the present picture probably depicts their eldest child, called Susanna Cecilia after her mother, who died young in 1768. In 1765 Mrs Hoare paid 70 guineas for the picture, which was probably painted 1763–1764.
Robert and his first wife also had a son Robert Henry Dingley.
There is no trace of Robert having left a will, but his second wife Esther left a will in which she made provision both of Robert’s children.
The Magdalen Hospital: The Story of a Great Charity, 1917
An account of the rise, progress, and present state of the Magdalen Hospital, for the reception of penitent prostitutes. Together with Dr. Dodd’s sermons…, 1770
The Environs of London: Counties of Herts, Essex & Kent
Courtesy of British Museum