Magdalen Hospital

Magdalen Hospital 2

The Magdalen Hospital, originally called Magdalen House, opened in Prescot Street, Whitechapel in 1758. In 1772 the institution moved to Blackfriars Road, on the site where Peabody Square is today, and was renamed the Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes and it was in the sense that it provided a refuge and a place where prostitutes could be treated and cared for that it was called a hospital. The charity was, for a while, fashionable and Sunday services were attended by the wealthy, keen to catch a glimpse of the fallen women who were hidden behind a screen in the hospitals chapel.

The reasons for the founding of the institution are complex and, reflecting the philosophy of the times, do not all stand up to scrutiny from todays perspective. There is a succinct yet comprehensive discussion of the issues at Whilst the Magdalen Hospital has been described as one of the odder manifestations of 18th century philanthropy (Lloyd - see Sources), the concept of providing a safe haven for young people where they are able to receive training and turn their lives around is still much in use today, one major difference now being that religion does not always play an integral part of this process. There is though something odd and provocative about the Magdalen Hospital seen from a time in history when womens expectations and circumstances are so very different. In the context of the time when it was founded, the help offered by the Magdalen Hospital was enlightened.

There was a growing awareness of the plight of prostitutes within London and plans for creating a Charity for their aid were put forward by various philanthropists, notably Jonas Hanway and John Fielding. The following is an extract from Jonas Hanways Plan:

Noble and extensive are the charities already established in this Metropolis; unfortunate Females seem the only objects who have not yet catched the attention of public benevolence: but we doubt not, it will appear on reflection, a task of as great compassion and consequence, necessity and advantage, to provide a place of reception for them, as for any under the protection of the public.

"Humanity, with its utmost efforts, pleads their cause more powerfully than any thing which can be offered on the subject; and it is obvious to every mind, from its own experience, that there cannot be greater objects of compassion, than poor, young, thoughtless Females, plunged into ruin by those temptations, to which their very youth and personal advantages expose then, no less than those passions implanted in our nature for wife and good ends. Surrounded by snares, the most artfully and industriously laid, snares, laid by those endowed with superior faculties, and all the advantages of education and fortune; what virtue can be proof against such formidable seducers, who offer to commonly, and to profusely promise, to transport the thoughtless girls from want, confinement, and restraint of passions, to luxury, liberty, gaiety, and joy? And when once seduced, how soon their golden dreams vanish! Abandoned by the seducer, deserted by their friends, condemned by the world, they are left to struggle with want, despair, and scorn; and even in their own defence to plunge deeper and deeper in sin, till disease and death conclude a miserable being.

"It is too well known, that this is the case and with most of the Prostitutes in their several degrees, sooner or later, from those pampered in private stews, to the common dregs infecting our streets: and that far the greatest part of those who have taken to this dreadful life, are thus seeking disease, death, and eternal destruction, not through choice, but necessity. The seeds of virtue would exert themselves; but, alas, the possibility is removed. The same necessity obliging them to prey on the unwary, diffuses the contagion; propagating profligacy, and spreading ruin, disease, and death, almost through the whole human species.

"What act of benevolence, then, can be greater, than to give these real objects of compassion an opportunity to reclaim, and recover themselves from their otherwise lost state; and opportunity to become useful members of society, as it is not doubted many of them may and will?

The prostitute as sentimentalised, almost romantic, naive victim appears curious, she seems to have stepped out of an 18th century novel. Tony Henderson (see Sources) states that some writers of that time believed that prostitutes came from respectable but impoverished lower middle class families but the reality was that most prostitutes came from the poorest sections of society. Many of these women were dependent on seasonal work or work subject to slumps and had no alternative but to turn to prostitution when they were unable to get work to feed themselves and often their families. This way of life was so common as to be acceptable in the poor sections of society. In reality, the majority of prostitutes were not a victim of a combination of her own folly and an individual seducer but a victim of grinding, crippling and ceaseless poverty and want that left her no other choice.

Undoubtedly though large numbers of seduced, tricked and deserted women who, because they had contravened the moral code were abandoned by their families, did turn to prostitution in desperation, or were very nearly tempted into it. In 1823 they were described by the Hospital as never having been in public prostitution but fly to the Magdalen to avoid it to such especially this house of refuge opens wide its doors; and instead of being driven by despair to lay violent hands on themselves, and to superadd the crime of self murder to that guilt which is the cause of their distress, or of being forced by the strong call of hunger into prostitution, they find a safe and quiet retreat in this abode of peace and reflection. .. The Committee generally give these young women the preference because they are almost certain of the best consequences.

In his plan for establishing the Magdalen Charity (1758), Hanway urged the greatest exactness shall be observed in distinguishing the proper objects to be admitted. He placed great emphasis on the need for the object to be aware that she had offended God by her behaviour and desired to seek forgiveness and pardon. Only those who repented would accept the two or three year confinement in the Hospital. It is probable the most intelligent and ingenious girls, who have had some education, and remain with some impression of religion on their minds, will be the first and always the most ready to accept the invitation which is given them. He suggested close contact with the Lock Hospital where venereal disease was treated to check the background and likely sincerity of those seeking admittance to the Magdalen Hospital for he believed that those who had contracted the disease through prostitution, when cured, generally returned to their former course as a dog to the vomit, or as a beast is driven to the slaughter house. The emphasis for admission was to be on penitence rather than penury.

It appears though that in the early years of the Hospital these selection criteria were not applied, though as we have seen above, by 1823 they were. Neither was Hanways suggestion of a system of separating the women into preferential wards according to their appearance, deportment and education though by the mid 1780s such a system was in place and there was a part of the Hospital for women of a better order. Upon admission, the women were placed in a probationary ward for two months after which time they were brought before the Committee, a report of their behaviour made by the Chaplain, Matron and Assistant Matron. Depending on this, they were then placed in one of the other wards suitable to their status, or dismissed from the Hospital.

Jonas Hanway clearly divided prostitutes into the virtuous and the vicious and so whilst the Magdalen Charity was established to help prostitutes, there were clearly grades of prostitute.

To be admitted to the Hospital, a Form of Petition was completed by the Steward (later called the Clark) from information given to him by the Petitioner which was presented to the Committee that sat monthly on a Thursday. The petition carried a full confession and statement of penitence that the Petitioner has been guilty of prostitution, and is truly sensible of her offence, which has plunged her into the greatest distress, and rendered her destitute of every means of getting an honest livelihood. The petition was anonymised as the Steward allocated to number to it, and this number was called when the applicant was called for interview by the Committee. The decision whether an applicant was admitted was decided by a vote of Committee members. Before this the petitioner was examined by a nurse, and a surgeon if necessary, and if found to be infected with a foul disease was refused admittance, but allowed to reapply at a later date if she obtained a cure. Pregnant women were also refused entry. There were about 20-30 applications per month but due to shortage of room, very few were admitted. Between the years of 1762 and 1848 the inmates per year was between 52 and 113.

Many of the applicants were very young, some as young as 13 or 14, and priority was given to their admission. In general the average age of an inmate was 17 or 18, indeed Jonas Hanway in his Plan laid down that women over the age of 30 should not be admitted as the Hospital should not become an asylum for old women.

In overall charge of the inmates was the Matron whose duties included seeing that all women are neat and decent in their apparel and persons; that they are duly employed, and behave in an orderly and religious manner, and that they constantly attend divine service She makes reports to the Committee weekly of the behaviour and conduct of the women. The Matron had two, later three, assistants, who observed the womens tempers and dispositions and whether they appear to be worthy objects of the charity; what offices in life they are most fit for; to communicate just sentiments, and encourage sober conversation, and a regular and pious behaviour. Bad behaviour was not tolerated in the Hospital and of the 1637 inmates who had been in residence between 1758 and Christmas 1775, 255 were dismissed for irregularities, amongst which want of temper has been the common evil.


The Trust no longer offers residential support itself but makes grants to promote the welfare of young people (of both genders), under the age of 25 years, who suffer from various effects of social deprivation, abuse, mental and physical handicap, inadequate housing, lack of education or training, and the problems derived from unemployment and broken families.


William Dodd,An Account of the Use Progress and Present State of the Magdalen Hospital,(1776)
Jonas Hanway, A Plan for establishing a Charity House, or charity houses for the reception of repenting prostitutes to be called the Magdalen Charity (1758)
Byelaws and regulations of the Magdalen Hospital (1816)
A Short Account of the Magdelen Hospital (1823)

Sarah Lloyd, Pleasures Golden Bait: Prostitution, Poverty and the Magdalen Hospital in Eighteenth-Century London: History workshop Journal, No. 41 (Spring 1996) pp 50-70
Tony Henderson,Disorderly Women in 18th century London: Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis 1730-1830 (1999)
Stanley Nash, Prostitution and Charity: the Magdalen Hospital, A Case Study: Journal of Social History, vol 17, No. 4 (Summer 1984) pp 617-628
S B P Pearce, An Ideal in the Working: the story of the Magdalen Hospital 1758-1958 (1958)