Rehab for 18th century sex workers – The Magdalen Hospital

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.

by John Dixon, after William Hoare, mezzotint, (1762) by John Dixon, after William Hoare, mezzotint, (1762)
by John Dixon, after William Hoare, mezzotint, (1762)

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.

Saint Mary Magdalene reading in a landscape, Correggio, Bonhams
Saint Mary Magdalene reading in a landscape, Correggio. Courtesy of Bonhams

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.

Staff 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.

Petition for AdmissionThe 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.

A Magdalen in 1760

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.

Magdalen by Thomas Rowlandson
Magdalen by Thomas Rowlandson

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

28 died

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

Total 1,036

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.

Image of the hospital

*  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 within a couple of years, Robert had married again, to Esther Spencer (Esther died 1784).

Robert died 1781 and there is a memorial for both Robert and Esther in the same church.

There is an obelisk and bust of Elizabeth (Thompson) Dingley at St Luke’s church, Charlton, Kent
There is an obelisk and bust of Elizabeth at St Luke’s church, Charlton, Kent.

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.

Richard Hoares' marriage to Susanna in 1762 in the presence of her father Robert. The marriage was carried out by none other than Rev. William Dodd.
Richard Hoares’ marriage to Susanna in 1762 in the presence of her father Robert. The marriage was carried out by none other than Rev William Dodd.
Mrs Susanna Hoare and Child by Joshua Reynolds; The Wallace Collection
Mrs Susanna Hoare and Child by Joshua Reynolds; The Wallace Collection

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, born in 1746.

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.

Sources Used:

The Magdalen Hospital: The Story of a Great Charity, 1917. H.F.B. Compston

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

Featured Image:

Courtesy of British Museum

9 thoughts on “Rehab for 18th century sex workers – The Magdalen Hospital

    1. All Things Georgian

      To be honest, we stumbled across it during some research we were doing and it was so interesting we hoped our readers would agree. It was great to read something that appeared positive unlike some of the reports we’ve come across about workhouses which professed to be about caring etc, but were in reality quite harsh institutions. As to whether the women agreed we have no idea as we have no first hand accounts (as yet!), but let’s hope so . Certainly the ‘outcomes’ analysis of time spent there seems to indicate a positive result.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. We had Magdalene Asylums/Laundries here in Ireland that operated for about two hundred years. The last one closed as late as 1996. They were run by Catholic nuns and young girls ended up there if they were orphaned or pregnant and unmarried or considered a bit ‘wild’ and once they were signed in they became virtual slaves. The women were often treated badly, sometimes sexually abused and their babies taken from them, at times without their consent, and sent away or sold into adoption. I know of one woman who went to one in the west of Ireland to have her baby as she was a single mother. Once her daughter was born she wanted to leave but needed something like £100 to take her child with her (payment for her stay and birth of her baby). Most women couldn’t afford this and if they managed to leave, it took a long time for them to pay to have their children released. This lady’s daughter was ‘farmed’ out as a domestic from the age of seven, the nuns being paid to provide her as a worker. It wasn’t until the girl was twelve years old that her mother managed to get her back and she had a lot of problems coping with life as she got older. The records of these institutions were kept secret and even today it’s difficult for anyone searching for their biological mother to get any information about their birth. The movie ‘Philomena’ is a typical example of how heartbreaking such institutions were and the survivors of these ‘prisons’ and their supporters are still trying to get justice for them today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All Things Georgian

      Thank you so very much for sharing this information with us. Certainly the original concept of the Magdalene in London was very different, especially in its refusal to accept a woman if she were pregnant. We have added a link now on our blog to the Magdalene Asylums/Laundries in Ireland for anyone who wishes to find out more about how they were run.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It makes for harrowing reading most of the time but the plight of those exploited women needs to be acknowledged. It has taken decades to squeeze even a weak apology from the religious orders involved. Thank you for adding the link.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Lesa Booth Compston

    It should be noted the author of the book The Magdalene Hospital The Story of a Great Charity, no?
    I’m a descendant of H.F.B. Compston aka Herbert Fuller Bright Compston.


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