The appeal of the philanthropic approach went far beyond its prom­ise of social improvement. Vanity, fashion, and self-interest were also important motives. Networks of family, friendship, and business, for example, were crucial to the success of every public charity. Between them, the eight men who founded the Magdalen held five director­ships of the Russia Company, four of the Marine Society, and four of the Foundling Hospital; with other ties through kinship, trade, the Bank of England, and the Society for Promoting Christian Know­ledge.1

The disadvantage of this dependence on private connections was that clashes of personality led easily to division. In 1756, for example, John Fielding had set up a scheme to supply homeless boys to the navy, only to have it hijacked by a group of merchants led by Jonas Hanway and Robert Dingley. Two years later, when the same men proposed a charity for prostitutes, he pointedly refused to join them and started a subscription of his own. This in turn provoked the expression of even deeper personal resentment by his fellow magis­trate and social reformer Saunders Welch, who had risen to the bench from humble origins. For years, Welch had felt ‘insulted in the grossest manner’ by Fielding’s snobbery. Now he struck back. Without ever mentioning him by name, he published a withering attack on Field­ing’s proposals, and then joined Dingley and Hanway’s committee.2 Out of these rival groups would emerge the Asylum and the Magdalen. The two projects had always been conceived of as part of the same scheme. They came to be separated not on principle but because of personal animosity.

Such unseemly squabbles provided ammunition for the view that all public charity was but a mask for selfish motives. It was easy to see, warned Dr Johnson in the aftermath of Fielding’s ‘ridiculous feuds’, that ‘open competition between different hospitals, and the animosity with which their patrons oppose one another, may preju­dice weak minds against them all’. Was it not obvious, asked a sceptic in 1763, that when a magistrate neglected his real business ‘while he is busied in raising money for new charities, under the pretence of suppressing vice. . . his charitable zeal proceeds from finding it his private advantage, and not from a public spirit, or a design of doing good?’ This was unfair, and yet it is undeniable that the greatest ben­eficiaries of public charities were often its employees and promoters. In The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom (1753) by the surgeon and novelist Tobias Smollett, the hero schemes to make his fortune as a London doctor by acquiring ‘interest enough to erect an hospital, lock [i. e. a venereal disease hospital], or infirmary, by the voluntary subscription of his friends; a scheme which had succeeded to a mir­acle, with many of the profession, who had raised themselves into notice, upon the carcases of the poor’.3

At sexual charities it was clergymen who showed themselves at their worst. The chaplain of St Thomas’s put about rumours that the chaplain of the Magdalen ‘had been excommunicated for immoral­ity’. The chaplain of the Lock became convinced of ‘unnatural wickedness being practised’ at the Magdalen and forced himself on it with a formal court of inquiry. Yet financial rather than sexual irregu­larity was both the most dangerous and the most likely problem in the uncertain, impoverished, and competitive world of unbeneficed cler­ics. The Lock Hospital was obliged to dismiss successive clergymen for larceny. The preacher of the Magdalen turned out to be a swindler and a cheat: in 1777, deep in debt, he was hanged for having obtained over 4,000 pounds through a forged bill of exchange. At the Lambeth Asylum the rot went deepest of all. In March 1761 the Reverend Francis Kelly Maxwell, long in the market for such a post, managed to get himself elected chaplain of the institution, at a stipend of half a guinea per week. Within a few weeks he had engineered the sacking of the charity’s secretary and added the post to his duties, thereby doubling his salary. By June, he and his family had been allotted rent – free apartments on the premises, and Maxwell had taken on the additional position of receiver of donations. As well as making him­self ever more indispensable and highly paid, he began to steal from the charity. By 1770 his emoluments had swollen to 200 guineas per year, as well as free housing, heat, and light. When, in the same year, the Asylum’s treasurer accused him of financial impropriety, Maxwell managed to oust him, took over the office himself, and expanded his misappropriations. Not until 1782 was he exposed and sacked.4

Self-interest also motivated the ordinary benefactors of any charity. It was a general truth that all organized philanthropy involved the exercise of authority over one’s inferiors: what Mandeville had described in 1723 as ‘one motive above all, which. . . is to be carefully conceal’d, I mean the satisfaction there is in ordering and directing’. By the second half of the century this was overtly acknowledged, even celebrated. As we have seen, it was conventional to portray the inmates of sexual charities as helpless children, and the patrons as their wise and benevolent parents. A prostitute, explained one preacher in 1759, was little different from ‘a poor harmless animal. . . suffering in misery’: only the intervention of a benevolent superior could save her. Her saviours, by contrast, were as angels: their benefi­cence outshone the sun, their endeavours were ‘truly godlike’, they were ‘the stewards and vice-gerents of heaven’. Subscribers to the Lock Hospital received an illustrated certificate which represented the Magdalen as an attractively demure young sinner and equated the subscriber’s donation with Christ-like benevolence and power.5

SELF-INTEREST AND SEXUAL INTEREST

17. The Lock Hospital’s subscription certificate.

This was not merely an abstract ideal. As at other types of hospital, it was presumed that any ‘object’ who desired the help of a charity would approach one of its benefactors in person, for him to decide her fate. ‘As the list of governors will be published from time to time’, explained one proposal for the Magdalen charity, ‘the women will of course endeavour to be recommended by some of them’. At the Lock Hospital no one was normally admitted except upon the recommen­dation of a governor, and it was decreed that ‘a preference be always given to those who subscribe the largest sums’. Similar rules applied at the Lambeth Asylum, where ‘the Guardians present according to the priority of their subscriptions’. Such presumptions came naturally to propertied men, who valued social and sexual hierarchy and were used to the exercise of patronage and deference (see plate 8).6

For similar reasons, high-born support was crucial, for it created publicity and attracted the rest of polite and would-be polite society. In the second half of the eighteenth century, as ever more philan­thropic institutions competed for attention, such fashionability was the key to success. In 1782 the Lambeth Asylum boasted as its patron the queen, and as its president the Prime Minister, Lord North. The Lock Hospital by contrast developed into a centre of evangelical piety, with close connections to the Wesley family and the ‘genteel Method­ist’ circle of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon. It was whilst attending a revivalist sermon in its chapel in 1783 that the young William Wilber – force experienced the beginning of his spiritual conversion. In 1787 he was amongst the founders of its sister institution, the Lock Asylum for female penitents.7

The most powerfully attractive sexual charity of all was the Magdalen House. Its chapel was a public theatre of benevolence, designed to attract the favour of the great, the good, and the merely curious. Its decoration carefully combined the prominent commemor­ation of noble benefactions with the latest fashions in interior design (‘hung with Gothic paper’, noted Horace Walpole approvingly on his first visit).8 Its centrepiece was the weekly public service by the senti­mental preacher and poet William Dodd.

Dodd was young, handsome, and, at least to begin with, impover­ished – the epitome of an eighteenth-century clergyman on the make. The Magdalen was his opportunity for fame and advancement, and he shamelessly exploited its sexual potential in a stream of publica­tions, even inserting anonymous letters in the papers that purported to come from grateful penitents. In sermon, likewise, he thought noth­ing of addressing his audience as if they were rakes and seducers, and he their innocent, abandoned whore. ‘Now see the sad end of thy triumph! – Oh look upon me, and see what cause thou hast to exult! Behold these wretched tatters, which scarcely cover my diseased limbs. . . See, my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth with hunger and with anguish. . . Oh see me hopeless and abandoned. . . mercy, mercy sweet father!’ In 1769, when the Scottish Presbyterian Alexan­der Carlyle attended one of Dodd’s services, he was so shocked by its indelicacy (the text was Matthew 5.28, ‘whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her’) that he spoke out to the congregation, ‘con­demning the whole institution, as well as the exhibition of the preacher, as contra bonos mores, and a disgrace to a Christian city’.9

What lent these occasions particular frisson was the presence in

SELF-INTEREST AND SEXUAL INTEREST

18. The Reverend Dr William Dodd: preacher, novelist, poet, and swindler.

chapel of the penitents themselves. It was not unusual to exhibit the objects of a charity. Tudor and Stuart hospitals for the infirm, the insane, and the criminal had always, like their medieval predecessors, been open to visitors. Since at least the early seventeenth century the orphans of Christ’s Hospital were every Easter paraded to a special service to sing a ‘psalm of thanksgiving’ to their benefactors. Charity schools employed similar methods; and joint-stock philanthropies followed their lead. In 1763, to raise money for the Lambeth Asylum, its chaplain dragged the girls around as many churches and chapels as would receive him, exhib­iting them to the congregations. It also became common for charities to commission special anthems, public concerts, and other entertainments as part of their programme of fund-raising. The Lock Hospital, whose chaplain Martin Madan was an enthusiastic amateur musician, became especially renowned for the high standard of its music.10

Yet at the Magdalen the implications of such conventional methods

of publicity were unusually ambiguous. It was precisely to end their public exposure that its inmates were supposed to have been with­drawn from the world. They lived in complete seclusion. ‘To prevent these penitents being exposed to the public eye’, a contemporary guide­book explained, all the windows of the house were covered by special shutters, ‘so that there is no possibility of these once unhappy women either seeing or being seen by any person who passes by’. No woman could ordinarily leave the house, and no casual visitors were permit­ted. Despite this, every Sunday every penitent was put on display before a large audience of strangers, who keenly observed the inmates singing, weeping, and publicly demonstrating their contrition. Amongst the hymns they performed was one ‘Against Lewdness’. It began:

Why should you let your wand’ring eyes,

Entice your souls to shameful sin!

Scandal and ruin are the prize You take such fatal pains to win

and ended with the rousing chorus,

Flee, sinners, flee th’unlawful bed,

Lest vengeance send you down to dwell In the dark regions of the dead,

To feed the fiercest fire in hell.

After such singing usually came one of Dodd’s ‘haranguing’ sermons. This stirred up such emotions amongst the penitents, reported Wal­pole after a visit in 1760, that they ‘sobbed and cried from their souls’, until the onlookers, too, were moved to tears. As Dodd himself described it rhapsodically,

When thou shalt hear their solemn prayers,

Mix’d with deep repentant tears:

Grateful songs and tuneful praise,

Pious orgies, sacred lays;

Finer pleasures which dispense Than the finest joys of sense:

And each melting bosom move,

And each liquid eye o’erflow With benevolence and love!

It proved to be a highly successful formula. By 1761 the crowds had grown so large that new galleries were added to the chapel and tickets issued in advance. When, on a visit to London, Carlyle tried to obtain some, having heard that it was ‘much the fashion’ to attend the ser­vice, he ‘had difficulty to get tolerable seats for my sister and wife, the crowd of genteel people was so great’. Even after an entirely new chapel was constructed, seating 500 people (and concealing the peni­tents behind a screen), even after Dodd’s disgrace and execution for forgery in 1777, the demand for entrance remained so insatiable that tickets for admission were traded by scalpers in the streets (see plate 9).11

The immense popularity of sexual charity depended only in part on its tangible effects. Its wider significance lies in what it tells us about changing philanthropic and sexual ideals, economic principles, and social practices. Yet thus far we have only briefly glimpsed life inside these new institutions. What was it like to enter the Magdalen as a penitent prostitute? To live there as an inmate? To embark on a new life afterwards?