Philanthropy promised to deliver three kinds of benefit: spiritual, demographic, and economic. Its methods were evidently novel. But the arguments for it were strikingly similar to those that had tradi­tionally underpinned punishment.

The most fundamental motive of both, for example, was to rescue sinners from damnation. Unlike other hospitals, boasted the support­ers of the Magdalen, this one saved souls as well as bodies. It alone comforted ‘the wounded mind’, and relieved ‘the unutterable anguish of a bleeding conscience’; it alone was ‘intended to heal the soul, and not only to abate temporary pains, but to save from eternal torments’. The ‘great and material point’ of her confinement, every woman was reminded upon admission, was her salvation.1

To this end, life in the Magdalen House was dominated by private and public prayer, sermons, hymns, the reading of edifying texts, and religious instruction by the resident matron and chaplain. Fasting was ‘particularly recommended’. The ultimate aim of it all was to prepare inmates for a good end. Like the death-bed conversions of egregious sinners, or the last dying confessions of convicted felons, the spiritual regime of penitent prostitutes was meant to put them in an appropriate state of readiness for paradise. Indeed, death itself was often portrayed as an imminent, happy relief. ‘Future bliss’ was not far away, the inmates were reassured; ‘everlasting comforts’ were being prepared for them in heaven; the holy angels were tuning their harps in readiness.2

The same note was often struck in edifying literature. When in 1770 the charity’s governors published ‘An authentic narrative of a Magdalen’, to give the public an idea of what happened to successful penitents, it described a girl who almost immediately after her discharge had fallen ill, lost a leg to gangrene, and died. In the wildly popular Tri­umphant Death of F. S., A Converted Prostitute who died April 1763, aged 26 (which by 1800 had gone through at least fourteen editions across the Empire) the heroine spends a month on her death-bed, receiv­ing visitors, testifying to the goodness of God, and breaking into impromptu song, before she finally expires ‘without the least sign of pain’. Even the inspirational picture chosen to decorate the matron’s par­lour at the Magdalen House depicted the ‘Death of a Penitent Prostitute’.3

Yet penitents were meant to be resurrected in this life as well. It was sometimes suggested that the hospital itself was an earthly paradise: ‘a little heaven’, a ‘blessed place’, ‘a heavenly hospitable asylum’. So great was the sanctity of the place, boasted one early account, that the mere report of it was known to have converted sinners. Other observ­ers, like Horace Walpole and his friend, the poet Edward Jerningham, were much taken with its resemblance to a convent. ‘What tho’ their youth imbib’d an early stain,’ declaimed the latter, in an unaccount­ably well-received effort of 1763, ‘A second innocence they here obtain, / And nun-clad penance heals their wounded name.’4

The commonest metaphor was that the Magdalen House was a family. Its inmates were infants, to be sheltered from the world and brought up in order, virtue, and obedience. The directors were not to be called governors but ‘Guardians’ or ‘Fathers’; the matron was ‘a good mother to all her little family’; the penitents were treated with ‘the gentleness of parental affection’. Reduced to a state of infantile helplessness, they were their parents’ ‘daughters of shame’, their ‘chil­dren of affliction’. They lived, it was happily observed, ‘with the simplicity of young children’. In order to facilitate their regression and rebirth, a preference was given to younger, more malleable appli­cants, and every effort was made to expunge the past. A woman could take a new name. No one was permitted to inquire into her history. Contact with the outside world was minimized.5

Through such means the reputation of each penitent was to be wiped clean and her character reshaped. In place of idleness and vice she would imbibe habits of discipline and sobriety. Upon admission, she swore ‘to behave herself decently and orderly’. Her old clothes were removed, and, if deemed ‘too fine’ for her station, confiscated. She was dressed instead in a plain grey uniform; admonished to main­tain ‘the humble, meek, and downcast look’; and nourished on simple, wholesome food. Every day followed a strict timetable of worship and hard work, whose practical purpose is neatly captured by the bib­lical passages on the life of Christ that were recommended for contemplation and imitation: ‘His frequent performance of the duty of private prayer’; ‘His humility and lowliness of mind’; ‘His content­ment in a low and mean condition in this world’; and so on. Re-educating prostitutes in this way enabled their rehabilitation in the world by restoring them to health and virtue, and curing for good their ‘disease of the mind’. Above all it paved the way for their return to a family, the best guarantor of public and private harmony. Restor­ing the fabric of domestic life was a central concern of the charity’s governors, who devoted considerable time and effort to reconciling penitents to their parents and friends.6

In its paternalism, its stress on re-education, and its desire to repair damaged social relations, the Magdalen House unwittingly echoed the ideals of sixteenth – and seventeenth-century houses of correction. The same was true of its concern with national health, although by the mid eighteenth century this had become a much more central and elaborate preoccupation than had been the case in Tudor and Stuart times. Like every major charitable institution of the mid eighteenth century, the Magdalen was intended to increase the population. Sixty per cent of the women they rescued, estimated the governors in 1759, would otherwise ‘have been dead in less than two years’. In the eyes of its supporters these were invaluable lives to have saved, especially ‘at a period when war is spreading so widely its terrible devastations of the human species’.7

Most inspiring of all was the prospect of stimulating marriage and fertility. Nothing epitomized the transformative power of philan­thropy in the 1750s and 1760s as vividly as the image of barren prostitutes turned into ‘the joyful mothers of children’, or of orphan girls preserved from ruin, and trained up instead to be ‘good wives, and mothers of a numerous issue’. ‘Particular encouragement is intended for those who shall marry,’ declared the promoters of the Dublin Asylum. Jonas Hanway, a life-long bachelor, was confident that ‘great numbers of these converts would find good husbands’; for it was evident to him that ‘all men are not equally delicate, in this instance’. ‘A change of manners of this kind’, conceded one early account of Magdalens mutating into eligible young brides, was ‘not less strange than new’; but they would undoubtedly make ‘the best of wives’. A system of cash rewards was set up to encourage the practice. The initial results were encouraging. Roughly 10 to 15 per cent of the women who completed their time in the House went on to be mar­ried. Before long, to the ‘inexpressible satisfaction’ of the governors, children began to be born to them.8

Within a few decades, though, political arithmetic was starting to move in the opposite direction. In 1798, Malthus’s Essay on the Prin­ciple of Population codified the new orthodoxy: it was overpopulation, not underpopulation, that constituted the real threat to national pros­perity. Well before then, the notion had begun to gain ground that the numbers of the labouring classes were less important than their eco­nomic discipline. The population, stated the leading economic commentator Arthur Young flatly in 1774, ‘ought to be left to its own course’. The same idea was implicit in Adam Smith’s hugely influen­tial Wealth of Nations, published two years later. It was, concluded the secretary of the Philanthropic Society in 1789, ‘a supposition not always verified by experience’ that every life was worth saving or sup – porting.9 Though demographic principles had been central to the foundation of mid-eighteenth-century philanthropies, by the early nineteenth century their practical application had come to seem much less straightforward.