Few traces have survived of life in these places before the nineteenth century. Their buildings have long vanished. All the manuscripts of the London Magdalen House have been destroyed. A single ledger is all that survives from the Lambeth Asylum. Our only way in is through the admissions books of the third main charity, the Dublin Magdalen Asylum. In these large volumes are recorded brief details about every inmate who passed through its doors. The only unmediated sign of the women themselves is their handwriting. A few signed their names confidently, but more often they struggled laboriously to spell out the letters with pen and ink, and many could manage only a small, hesi­tant cross. A ‘mark’ to show they had been present – and now the only personal remnant left of them on earth. Yet in and between the lines of the dry, bureaucratic entries, there are other fragments of their lives outside and inside the institution.1

Dublin was the second greatest metropolis of the Empire, a huge, thriving port and capital city. Its Magdalen Asylum was founded in 1767 by the philanthropist Lady Arbella Denny, a grand-daughter of the political arithmetician Sir William Petty, in direct imitation of the London Magdalen House. It was always much smaller than its sister institution. It raised less money and could house fewer inmates. In essentials, though, the two foundations, and later penitential houses, were alike in their regime.

We cannot see the women’s faces, and nothing is recorded of their previous lives. But we can conjure up some sense of their appearance on entry, before they were stripped and changed into the Magdalen uniform that they wore throughout their time inside. What’s more, we can see their names, their real names, which they also gave up for the duration of their stay, and sometimes for ever. Sarah McDowel came in under that name in November 1767 but left eighteen months later as ‘Sarah Grace’; Sophia Roder went back into the world as ‘Sophia Godly’, in testimony of her new life. Inside the house no woman had any name at all, just a number: ‘Mrs One’, ‘Mrs Two’, ‘Mrs Three’, and so on. That was how the staff referred to them, and how they addressed one another.

They were all young. At the London Magdalen many were still in their early teens, and most were under twenty. In Dublin only girls under nineteen were admitted.2 A few of them were dressed splendidly. In the summer of 1774, Harriet Rubery arrived with night-gowns, ear-rings, and ‘thirteen books’, but she was an exception. So was Ann Fenton in 1777, who owned the latest fiction, a decent wardrobe, and a large amount of cash – but even she could not write her name. A handful of other inmates appear to have been moderately well-off young women. Some were evidently sheltering from the shame of fornication rather than prolonged prostitution. Mary Thompson, rec­ommended by the Bishop of Waterford himself, arrived with an ample wardrobe, a Bible, and a book of common prayer, and later had sent over still more gowns, ruffles, caps, and other clothes. Elinor Ward returned to her family after only a few months, ‘in expectation of marriage’. A few, like Catherine Robinson, ‘descended of a good fam­ily’, and Ann Stanhope, whose people were ‘creditable persons’, stayed as paying boarders. Ann Clapham’s father was ‘so genteel that he would not allow her to take the guinea’ that departing inmates were given by the charity. Ann Stanhope likewise declined the offer of money and new clothes.

More commonly, though, the women who sought admittance had few possessions – even fewer, in fact, than most workhouse paupers.3 Most did not even own a decent pair of shoes. Many, for the sake of appearances, had come in borrowed clothes; others in rags that were so foul they had to be burned or thrown away. Their lack of decent dress testified to grim and desperate lives. No wonder that the gift of a new wardrobe was such a prominent part of the Asylum’s charity. On entering, each Magdalen was given a set of plain clothes: petti­coats, shifts, aprons, caps, neckerchiefs, stays, stockings, shoes, and towels. Every woman who stayed the full term (eighteen months, or two years) left with this essential bounty. For respectable attire was vital to respectable employment. Without ‘clothing to fit her for ser­vice’, even the best-intentioned former inmate would struggle to maintain a virtuous life.

To such women life inside the Asylum must have been a shock. Its main purpose was relentless religious indoctrination, through com­plete seclusion from the world, private reading and instruction, collective rituals, and a rigid daily routine. Every day, and even more intensely on Sunday, there were several hours of compulsory ‘private devotion and meditation’, regular prayers, and a service in chapel. Twice a week they were given formal lectures about the basic tenets of Christianity, on which every woman was publicly examined. The overall behaviour of each Magdalen was monitored daily, judged, and recorded in a special book of censure. If any woman misbehaved per­sistently, the other inmates were assembled to humiliate and expel her publicly. First they collectively chanted a prayer over her, warning of ‘the bitter pains of eternal death’, then they all sang a special hymn on the terrors of conscience, the wrath of God, and the horrors of unchas­tity.4 Then she was cast out. Conversely, the most penitent and devout inmates were allowed to take communion once a month. This was evidently a ritual that was seen to convey special protection upon the recipient. As her time of departure drew near, Jane Utley ‘beg’d to receive the sacrament, hoping for the grace of God to enable her to live a Christian life’: after a year and a half inside, she did not want to leave the Asylum without it.5 To modern eyes the whole regime resembles that of a religious cult, intent on brainwashing its members during months of captivity. And that was precisely the idea.

All sexual philanthropy was therefore riven by a great contradic­tion. Its propaganda incessantly stressed that every fallen woman was essentially innocent: the poor, unwary, ignorant victim of rich, experi­enced, and merciless seducers. ‘You know not’, she begged her saviours, ‘by what artifice, by what flattery, by what treacherous devices, my inexperienced, untutored, unprotected, unsuspecting youth is thus plunged into the depths of shame and sorrow’. Prostitu­tion was ‘abhorrent to the female character’; women were only forced into it by the cruelty of men and the iniquity of the double standard.6

Yet, at the same time, the practice of sexual charity was entirely focused on inculcating Magdalens with the deepest sense of their own guilt, in order that they might break down, repent, and be reborn as true Christians. Their entire being was corrupted and depraved, they were told: only the severest treatment could bridle their disgusting sexual incontinence. ‘We are every moment,’ warned one of their preachers, ‘to apprehend a relapse, and to guard against it by a scru­pulous caution, and regimen apparently severe. Appetites may be craving, and desires irregular; but these must be obstinately con­trolled.’ Despite all the talk and writing and concern over the structural causes of prostitution, in the end the philanthropic solution was simply to place the entire burden back onto the individual female con­science – to inculcate women with a horror of their past crimes and a terror of their future damnation should they be weak enough to relapse and ‘be entangled in your former pollutions’.7

The spiritual inoculation they received in the Asylum was supposed to be the main safeguard against reinfection with sin. To keep their piety alive after their return to the world, the women were sent back into it not only with clothes and a little money, but a stack of essential reading – such as a prayer book, a catechism, The Knowledge and Practice of Christianity, the Happiness of the Next Life, a Companion to the Altar, and Instructions for the Sacrament.

Apart from religious indoctrination, the main aim of life inside was to work as hard as possible. Many hours every day were spent on domestic chores and on sewing. Instilling the women with proper hab­its of industry was meant to help them gain employment upon their departure: domestic service and needlework were pretty much the only conceivable occupations for a young friendless woman. As time went on, its practical importance was acknowledged ever more openly. Departing women were given fewer books, and received instead a set of embroidery tools. Less time was devoted to prayers and reading, more to work.8 Their sewing also helped the finances of the house, though never by much. But the main purpose of daily labour was ethical – hard work was supposed to demonstrate and support a virtu­ous character. So the overseers of the Asylum constantly worried and scolded that lack of diligence was a sign of imperfect reform, and pres­aged a return to evil habits. Mary Layfield’s ‘understanding is not very strong. . . she means to be virtuous, but she wants industry’. Susanna Cottrell took ‘a long time. . . to see it was her duty to work as well as she was capable’. Arabella Carter ‘seems very sensible of her past errors [yet] she has not been as industrious as she shou’d have been’. It was to be hoped that Ann Langford would ‘remain virtuous’, noted Lady Arbella Denny, ‘but a weak understanding will expose her to many evils, and I fear she has not a just sense of the necessity of industry’.

A sizeable minority of penitents grasped their opportunity with both hands, and thrived within and beyond the Asylum. Jenny King, alias Purcell, alias Gallaher, whose multiple names suggest she was far from newly seduced, entered in October 1767. One of her hands was maimed; she had no possessions save a ragged gown and petticoat. But she had come determined to start her life over. She soon made contact with her mother, a poor, devout widow in Sligo, who was overjoyed by the ‘life reviving’ news that Jenny had turned her back on vice, and was desperate to see her again. Upon returning home, a year and a half later, she embraced her dying parent and resolved henceforth to ‘live as becomes a penitent; who hopes, by a pious and truly Christian behaviour, to obtain a pardon from the great God of my manifold sins’.8 Alice Sandilon proved herself ‘an extraordinary good work-woman and very diligent’. Her behaviour was so good that it won her ‘a very good service with an honourable family’, and an early exit. Jane Holdcraft likewise ‘behaved very well and went to a service that was ready for her before she left’. A decade later she had prospered and was living, happily married and industriously occu­pied, on a thirty-acre farm in Wexford.

Many women, however, could not endure the enforced piety and subordination. By the end of the century, over a third of those admit­ted to the Dublin Asylum had asked to leave, run away, been expelled, or otherwise failed to complete their course of treatment.1 0 Emelia Pierce ‘would not submit to the rules’. Ann Collier ‘could say a great deal on the wrong side of the question’ and was expelled ‘for stub­bornness and disobedience’; Sarah Neal for ‘idleness and an ill tongue and impudence’. Even amongst those who got through and left with credit, many faced an uncertain future. Secure employment was hard to find, especially for suspect women. Some relapsed into sin, like Sarah Lucas, discharged into service but then found by her mistress in bed with a man. Or they might simply disappear. After twelve months back in the world, any woman who could testify that she had lived respectably could write in to claim a bounty of two guineas from the Asylum. It is notable that most did not. Doubtless some of these van­ished penitents just wanted to leave their former life behind them, like those who went overseas. Elizabeth Gogan shipped for Maryland when, even after she had emerged from the Asylum as a well-behaved penitent, ‘her friends and relations would not see her, [and] thought she had best leave the kingdom’. In numberless other cases the silence in the record doubtless signals a more ominous fate.

These figures were similar to those of the London Magdalen House, about half of whose early inmates (according to its published accounts) successfully completed their time and went on to respectable careers. The high failure rate is surely significant. The women who passed through these institutions were not a cross-section of ordinary prosti­tutes, but hand-picked recruits – many of them recently seduced girls rather than hardened whores. There were always more applicants than places: even of the volunteers, only the most promising got in. The fact that, even then, so many of them fell by the wayside is a measure of quite how demanding and uncertain the new philanthropic remedies proved to be – and of the huge gap between their obsession with per­sonal character and the broader structural problems of female victimization, impoverishment, seduction, and prostitution.

Yet, however imperfectly and fitfully, those methods did also work. In their first few decades alone, the Lambeth Asylum and the two Magdalen houses helped transform hundreds of lives. Even women

who were expelled often left determined and able to make a new beginning, convinced of the Christian truths that had been drummed into them. Margaret Clark lasted only eight months before she was ejected ‘for bad behaviour being vulgar and ungovernable’. She was only just learning to read and write. All the same, ‘she vowed she designed to be virtuous’, promised she would find work as a servant, and wrote triumphantly from America a few months later: ‘I could not have found a better Master and Mistress than I have got’. Another, perhaps the Sarah McDowel who had left as ‘Sarah Grace’, relapsed into unchastity following her discharge. But then she, too, found God and shipped herself to America as an indentured servant. ‘Your once darling daughter’, she wrote to her mother from across the globe, ‘for whom you thought nothing good enough, is now a slave’:

Think not I tell you this to grieve you; no, my Mother, rejoice, for it is this that must draw my soul out of the horrible pit; it was not in voluptuous pleasures I was to find my God, it was in adversity. I hope that my fate may be a warning to them to whom the beginning of my life has been a parable. Yet, Oh! For God’s sake forgive my crimes, and let your prayers be night and morning offered up to the throne of mercy for me.

And then, with this reminder of the extraordinary power of religious ideals to shape the consciousness even of the most obscure eighteenth – century harlot, she vanishes forever from our sight.11