From the 1750s onwards, the rescue and rehabilitation of prostitutes became a major social concern. Huge efforts were poured into the foundation and operation of asylums, workhouses, and other chari­ties for fallen women, girls at risk of seduction, and other actual or potential victims of male lust.

We have already noticed several of the main developments that made this possible. By the middle of the eighteenth century, as a by­product of the advance of sexual liberty for men, the scope and visibility of prostitution had increased significantly. The view that it should be tolerated had become widely accepted. So too had the idea that prostitutes were usually the victims of seduction and abandon­ment. And the age-old presumption that common whores could be summarily punished for their evil-doing was gradually supplanted by the principle that, in fact, prostitution itself was not legally punish­able. What remains to be explained is the rise and shape of public philanthropy towards prostitutes. Why did it become so wildly popular?

The basic ideas that prostitution might be a necessary evil, and that penitents deserved assistance, had first emerged as part of medieval Catholic doctrine. In the pre-Reformation church the cult of Mary Magdalen had been immensely popular, and in Protestant England her story lived on as a powerful parable of moral failing and redemp­tion. ‘I doubt not but we be all Magdalens in falling into sin,’ wrote John Foxe in the 1560s, ‘but we be not again Magdalens in knowing ourselves and in rising from sin’. The theatre of the early reformers adapted the medieval dramatizations of her life to propagate Calvin­ist doctrine; and hers was one of the few saints’ days that continued to be marked by the Church of England. In the early seventeenth cen­tury her image remained recognizable enough to adorn street signs and to inspire verse. Indeed, depictions of the Magdalen weeping were such a popular theme in contemporary poetry that they gave rise to a new adjective, ‘maudlin’, to describe tearful sentiment. Later in the century, under the influence of continental examples, painted and printed images of beautiful penitents became highly fashionable. Sev­eral of Charles II’s mistresses were pictured as Magdalens. By the 1740s, the genre had grown so ubiquitous as to be one of the tired and worn-out cliches attacked by Hogarth in his satirical Battle of the Pictures (see illustrations 10-12).1

This new fascination with penitents coincided with mounting dis­satisfaction over the efficacy of punishment. The traditional view had been that chastisement was the best way of encouraging sexual sin­ners to reform. To let the ‘punishment beat you home to God’, they were told, was the true ‘work of charity to your soule’. ‘Charity expended for correcting the idle,’ explained one divine, ‘is better than that which gives them a present ease’, for if left uncorrected they would destroy not only themselves but others too. ‘Pity therefore in

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io. The Duchess of Cleveland, Charles II’s mistress,
as ‘England’s Magdalen’.

 

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11. In the later 1660s Sir Peter Lely painted Mary Davis, another of Charles
II’s mistresses, in the guise of the Magdalen: this engraved, mass-market
version was produced some years later.

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12. Magdalena, by Jan Griffier: a typically salacious popular mezzotint of the ostensibly religious subject.

you would be the greatest cruelty,’ another preacher urged magistrates in 1698: to be truly charitable towards whores and whoremongers they should rather ‘put off all bowels of compassion’ and exercise ‘the utmost rigour’. ‘Few are committed to the house of correction,’ it was conventionally believed, ‘but they come out better.’2

By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this had become a questionable supposition. It was, thought the businessman Jonas Hanway, merely the out-dated logic of ‘lawgivers and magistrates’, who believed that ‘compulsive labour, or corporal correction, would either awe the wicked, and prevent iniquity; or that the actual suffering of these severities, would reform all gross enormities’. It was also increasingly difficult to reconcile with the overstretched, grubby reality of metropolitan justice. Stripping a woman naked and whipping her in public ‘may, for aught I know, contribute to her mod­esty, and put her in a state of innocence’, mused Bernard Mandeville disingenuously: but really ‘flogging has a quite contrary effect’. The hero of The London-Spy was equally certain: if anything, ‘it makes many whores. . . but it can in no measure reclaim ’em.’3

Such cynicism about the efficacy of punishment had a long popular history. Now, though, as we saw in Chapters 1 and 2, it took on new respectability. As early as the 1690s, even some supporters of the ref­ormation societies acknowledged that, contrary to the traditional view, prostitutes sent to a house of correction ‘do generally come out ten times worse and more impudent than they went in’. The same conclusion gradually imposed itself on lawgivers and magistrates as well. A Commons committee resolved in 1751 that there were ‘great defects in, and abuses of, the houses of correction’. Henry Fielding agreed: they tended more to ‘the improvement, than for the correction of debauchery’. In short, as one of his subordinates concluded despondently, after years of zealously enforcing the law, it was a ‘use­less severity’ to punish prostitutes, for ‘punishment only prevents for the time it operates, but hardly ever produced one reformation’.4

Alternative proposals, based on the power of religion, were first put forward around the turn of the century. Surely, argued Thomas Bray, founder of the Societies for the Propagation of the Gospel and for Promoting Christian Knowledge, if prostitutes were confined in ‘a penitential hospital. . . under the government of some wise and virtu­ous matrons, and some aged and holy divines’, they would in due course ‘recover to a due fear of God, and horror of their evil ways’. Instead of mere outward punishment, they should be subjected to prayers, catechisms, ‘penances and methods of mortification. . . ’til they are morally persuaded [and] become thoroughly and sincerely reformed’. His fellow missionary and philanthropist Thomas Nelson became equally convinced of the need for ‘a house to receive such young women as may be convinced of their folly’, where they might be restored to moral health ‘by a true Christian discipline’.5 Until gen­eral attitudes towards the culpability of whores began to soften in the 1730s and 1740s, however, such charitable views were uncommon.

Indeed, for many centuries English attitudes on this point seem to have been harsher than those in other Christian countries. During the middle ages, with the encouragement of successive popes, many con­vents and other institutions for repentant prostitutes had been founded across the continent, in Byzantium, Italy, Germany, France, and else­where. But not in England. Many more were established as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth cen­turies. Yet to English commentators these had always been illustrations of popish sexual corruption, rather than serious social projects.6

It was only towards the middle of the eighteenth century, as sup­port for the idea slowly spread, that its practice in Catholic countries was increasingly referred to with approval rather than distaste. By the 1750s, many English proponents of a penitential hospital were frank in their admiration of foreign examples. The English, thought Hanway, were not on the whole as sexually ‘abandoned’ as, say, the Italians; but when it came to dealing with the consequences they had much to learn. ‘Though we think ourselves so much wiser than many other nations, yet, in this particular, we are many years behind several of them.’7 It was the language not just of a well-travelled individual, but of a more cosmopolitan generation. Half a century of increasing Eng­lish involvement in European affairs, through trade, travel, and war, had greatly broadened the appreciation, at first or second hand, of foreign ways of doing things.

The notion of a penitential hospital also became increasingly prac­ticable. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, innovative proposals such as those of Bray and Nelson had remained the pursuit of a pious minority, and their implementation faced widespread hos­tility. Like every area of public life after the Glorious Revolution, new philanthropies tended to become a battle-ground between the inter­ests of Whigs and Tories, High Churchmen, and dissenters. Each of the main charitable initiatives of the period – corporations of the poor, workhouses, and charity schools – was undermined by such pol­itical and sectarian conflicts.8

From the 1730s onwards, by contrast, there emerged a new, less politicized way of organizing public philanthropy, adapted from the world of commercial speculation: a private, joint-stock company, funded by subscription and targeted at a specific problem, rather than at the poor as a whole. The spectacular success on this model of the London Foundling Hospital (chartered in 1739, opened in 1741) sud­denly made practical intervention in social problems seem much easier than it had been earlier in the century. Together with the outbreak of war at the end of the 1730s (and again in the mid-i750s), it also helped to make joint-stock philanthropy fashionable, especially amongst the capital’s growing business community. As political arith­metic became established as a central foundation of public policy, saving lives became an ever more urgent national priority.9

The Foundling was rapidly followed by the London (1740) and Middlesex (1745) Hospitals, which addressed themselves to illness and injury, and then by a multitude of more specialized projects: amongst them the so-called Lock Hospital for treating venereal dis­ease (i747), two hospitals for the cure of smallpox, and no fewer than five ‘lying-in’ charities to ease the childbirth of poor women. The Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes, and the Lambeth Asylum to protect poor girls from seduction, both of which opened in London in 1758, followed the same model. So did the Dublin Magdalen Asylum, founded in 1767, and every later institution of this kind.10

By mid-century, attitudes towards innovative social projects had been turned on their head. From being the preserve of a minority and the outgrowth of exceptional religious zeal, public charity had become a leading expression of social and mercantile status. Amongst the founders of the Magdalen and the Lambeth Asylum there was not a

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13. The London Magdalen House: the first refuge for penitent prostitutes to be founded in the English-speaking world.

single clergyman. Instead, philanthropy was now an activity indulged in by a large and varied community of propertied men and women, and widely celebrated as a mark of British enlightenment. ‘It is hardly possible to mention a sickness or disease,’ marvelled a metropolitan preacher in 1762, ‘but an asylum is readily found for the unhappy. . . indigent sufferer’. ‘A general philanthropy happily abounds through the nation,’ exulted others; London as a whole was ‘an ornament, in its public charities especially, to human nature, and to Christianity’.11

The foundation of charities to rescue poor women from sexual suf­fering was thus one instance of a more general movement to improve the health and numbers of the labouring classes, and thereby increase national strength and prosperity. However, the prominence of sexual philanthropies also illustrates the advance of new sentiments about female innocence and culpability. The older view had always been that providing for bastards and sexual sinners would simply encour­age fornication. As Defoe summarized the arguments against a Foundling Hospital in 1728, it would ‘set up a nursery for lewdness, and encourage fornication. . . Who would be afraid of sinning, if they can so easily get rid of their bastards? We shall soon be over-run with

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14. The Lambeth Asylum: poor girls deemed to be at risk of seduction were sent to live here, to be brought up as servants and apprentices.

foundlings when there is such encouragement given to whoredom.’ But by the middle of the eighteenth century, for the first time, the con­trary opinion had begun to hold sway. It is true that the application of sympathy was easier in some cases than in others. To argue, for example, that sufferers from venereal disease were deserving victims, rather than foul and culpable sinners, involved the early propagan­dists of the Lock Hospital in some revealingly defensive rhetoric. No, they were forced to stress, diseased whores (and others ‘who vol­untarily draw this misery on themselves’) were not ‘improper objects’; no, they should not ‘be left to rot alive’; no, they continued in their trade, spreading disease, not willingly but only out of ‘a kind of neces­sity’. The hospital’s main problem in attracting fashionable backing was that its practical benefits appeared to be comparatively limited. The sheer repulsiveness of the subject did not help. At no other char­ity would the chaplain himself, far from rushing in to rescue souls, frankly admit to his patients that he could not bear to stay long in the ward, or ‘converse with you in private’, because of their repugnant state.12

Far more appealing was the prospect of ‘making bad women into good ones’ through a charity for penitent whores. By the 1750s sup­port for this idea had become a commonplace of polite society. Newspapers and pamphleteers eagerly discussed its principles and practice. Members of Parliament spoke approvingly of it. The Arch­bishop of Canterbury took a keen interest. Horace Walpole joked about turning Strawberry Hill into ‘an hospital for filles repenties’. The topical poet John Lockman rushed out ‘The ruined Margaretta’s soliloquy, in her garret, Drury-Lane, after reading the proposal for saving deserted and prostitute girls’, to be performed to music at Vauxhall. The less fashionable public could purchase a penny pamph­let that explained the utility of a penitential hospital. The Dowager Duchess of Somerset, who had been the first of the ‘Lady Petitioners’ for a Foundling Hospital back in 1729, again set an example by head­ing a subscription. Many competing plans were devised. The London Chronicle announced that it would defray the cost of publishing any proposal, so as to aid the search for the most practicable design. A large committee of luminaries set up for the same purpose included amongst its number the uxorious actor David Garrick, so happily married that he never so much as spent a day apart from his wife, as well as the infamous libertine John Wilkes, who revelled in sexual var­iety.* No other practical scheme of the period so successfully appealed to men and women of widely differing sensibilities.13

Its universal attraction was equally evident from the attitude of the leading authors of the day. By the 1750s Samuel Johnson had plenty of experience picking up prostitutes: though mainly, he stressed, ‘for the sake of hearing their stories’. ‘His younger friends now and then affected to tax him with less chast[e] intentions,’ records an early biographer. ‘But he would answer – “No Sir; we never proceeded to the Opus Magnum." ’ At one point Dr Johnson had himself taken dir­ect action to save ‘one of those wretched females’. He carried her home on his back, nursed her to recovery from venereal disease, and found her a respectable job: precisely the kind of charity that, it was now envisaged, a public hospital should provide.14

Samuel Richardson, by contrast, boasted that he’d never in his life visited a brothel, nor ever even been ‘in company with a lewd woman’. Yet he was equally taken with the idea. Already in the 1740s he had advocated a ‘college for Magdalens’, and discussed with his confi­dante Lady Bradshaigh how best to help fallen women. When revising Clarissa in 1751, he laid new emphasis on the heroine’s repentance for her forced unchastity. Miss Harlowe, a character now observed, ‘hath been a second Magdalen in her penitence, and yet not so bad as a Magdalen in her faults’. Three years later, the superior sensibility of Sir Charles Grandison was revealed by his merciful response to the ‘melancholy story’ of his father’s old mistress, the ‘poor Magdalen’ Mrs Oldham, who ‘wept. . . as a penitent’ in gratitude for his good­ness. Later in the novel, Richardson has Sir Charles make an impassioned speech in favour of ‘An Hospital for Female Penitents’, where seduced women might ‘recover the path of virtue’. When the Magdalen House opened, Richardson became a generous subscriber and activist on its behalf.15

Even more important was the engagement of two key groups. The first were the city’s leading magistrates. ‘Who will not rejoice to see

* Among the Lambeth Asylum’s earliest Guardians-for-Life was likewise the notori­ous rake Sir Francis Dashwood: An Account of the Institution, and Proceedings of the Guardians, of the Asylum (1761), 28.

this happy change,’ exclaimed the blind justice John Fielding, ‘miser­able prostitutes, etc. converted into modest, decent, happy women, and useful domestic servants’. For years, wrote his colleague Saunders Welch in 1753, he had wished ‘with an aching heart’ that, in this age of ‘hospitals for almost every human calamity’, one could be provided ‘whereby these unhappy fellow-creatures might be rescued from dis­ease and misery, and instead of being a nuisance to the public, become useful to it’. In the later 1750s both men submitted detailed plans to the public and set about vigorously raising money.16

More helpfully still, the scheme was taken up by a group of mer­cantile philanthropists including Hanway, the most active and eccentric humanitarian of the eighteenth century, and his business partner Robert Dingley. These were men with wide-ranging contacts, adept at mobilizing public opinion, who already had considerable experience as the founders and governors of other joint-stock chari­ties. Once they turned their full attention to the creation of a penitential hospital the outcome was scarcely in doubt. ‘This seems to be the only object that has escaped us,’ wrote Hanway excitedly to Dingley in 1758, as its foundation came within their sights. What a glorious prospect it was, he exulted, ‘to co-operate with heaven’ in turning abandoned prostitutes into happy wives and mothers – ‘a work of creation as well as redemption’.17

Once it had been articulated and promoted in these ways, the idea of a hospital for penitents captured the popular imagination more quickly and more fully than any other charitable institution of the eighteenth century. When a subscription was first opened it reached over three thousand pounds within a few weeks – more money than other charities raised in years. Within a few months, the governors had rented and equipped a building, and on 10 August 1758 the Magdalen House in Whitechapel received its first penitents. By 1760 the number of inmates, originally restricted to fifty, had swelled to over 130; by 1769, when the hospital began constructing new accommodation in Blackfriars, over 1,500 women had passed through it. Throughout the following decades, benefactions poured in from across the English­speaking world. ‘From Buckinghamshire to Barbados, from Middlesex to Madras, from Chepstow to Calcutta’, men and women eagerly sup­ported the new charity.18

Its success exemplified a profound and lasting shift in the treatment of sexual immorality. Henceforth, non-governmental, charitable organizations would always play a major role in social policy towards prostitution, supplementing and even sidelining the church and the state’s traditional focus on policing and punishment. This was a not­able expansion in the scale and ambition of collective charity. Moreover, public policy now presumed that women were not always wholly responsible for their own sexual conduct. Instead, they needed to be rescued from circumstances beyond their control. Philanthropy thus both reconceived the problem of prostitution and promised a radical new solution. ‘The old method of fighting has been found so ineffectual,’ urged Hanway. ‘Let us try a different kind of treatment.’19