Magdalene Asylums of Edinburgh

I recently ran across a short paper looking at the Scottish versions of the Irish “Magdalene laundries” that have become infamous in recent years. The paper seems to suggest that the Scottish institutions were less harsh than their Irish counter-parts. Here are some notes from the article.

Magdalene Asylums seem to have their earliest origins in the sixth century with Empress Theodora’s convent, called Metanoia as an attempt to help victims of human traffickers who enslaved girls from poor families as sex workers. The historian Procopius wrote that over 500 women took refuge and repentance there during the life of the empress. Rebecca McCarthy’s book Origins of the Magdalene Laundries presents them as a continuation of a practice that had spread across Europe due to various economic and political factors. The London Magdalene Hospital was founded in 1758 and is considered the beginning of the “Magdalene revival” in the British Isles. In 1797 the Philanthropic Society of Edinburgh was opened with the goal of the re-socialization of former prisoners. It began small with just a couple of women placed in the care of volunteer families in Edinburgh, but it was quickly decided that it would be better to house them in a reformatory setting, the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum. This way they could exercise  more control over the women and they would receive religious education. In addition to this, there were at least four similar establishments in Edinburgh during the 1800’s providing aid, refuge, and reform to prostitutes and “fallen women”.

The Scotsman Magazine published an article in 1864 described the Female Shelter and the Rescue Home. It accepted women ages 14 to 38 often directly as they were released from jail. They provided laundry and sewing services to the public which, together with other household duties, were part of its program of reformation and preparation for an independent life. The inmates typically stayed there for two years, but the women were free to leave the institution, although a good deal of pressure was put on them to stay. They were allowed supervised visits from friends or family on a monthly bases were assisted with finding a job or being reunited with their families upon completing the program. The Female Shelter was also limited to 35 women at a time, but there were only 25 there at the time of the visit from the reporter from The Scotsman.

The other institution in the Scotsman article, The Rescue Home, sounds a bit more like something akin to a modern half-way house and only accepted 8 women at a time. Founded in 1861 it was a ‘first place of recourse’ for women released from prison who would stay there only a matter of a couple of days, or weeks and help them reconcile with their families and friends. It also seems to have attracted women who had gone through religious conversion, or rebirth at religious revival type meetings. Although small, it was popular and was forced to frequently refer women to other institutions in Edinburgh.

Thus, it seems that in Edinburgh there multiple options for “fallen women” who were seeking assistance in reintegrating into society. According to articles at the time, most women appeared at the doors of these establishments alone, so they were more likely seeking help voluntarily, not being forced by the courts or family. Thus, while some of the Magdalene Asylums were abusive, exploitative institutions in some cities there were more humane options available.

The full article Magdalene Establishments in nineteenth-century Edinburgh by Jowita A. Thor can be read at .

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