One of the things I love about doing research for historical writing is contact with unfamiliar language, ideas and sentiments. Mary Powell, a historical character and one of the main protagonists in The Dipping Pool, was an educated and monied woman with independent interests. In my novel she is involved in supporting several of the emerging charitable institutions in London at the time. The 'Lock' Hospital, established for the treatment of venereal disease in 1747; the Welsh School, dating back to 1718; the Foundling Hospital (1740s) and Magdalen House being examples. Here is an extract from the excellent site www.exploringsouthwark.co.uk in which the history of what later became known as the Magdalen Hospital is discussed:
'Before Peabody Square was built at the southern end of Blackfriars Road in 1873 the site was home to an institution called The Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes. Originally called more simply Magdalen House, it opened in Prescott Street, Whitechapel in 1758 and moved to Blackfriars Road in 1772. It provided a refuge and temporary home for prostitutes where they could be “treated” and cared for, in today’s language it would be called rehabilitation. The charity was, for a while, fashionable and Sunday services were attended by the wealthy, keen to catch a glimpse of the “fallen” women hidden behind a screen in the hospital’s chapel.
In his plan for establishing the Magdalen Charity (1758), Hanway urged “the greatest exactness shall be observed in distinguishing the proper objects to be admitted.” He placed great emphasis on the need for the “object” to be aware that she had offended God by her behaviour and desired to seek forgiveness and pardon. Only those who repented would accept the two or three year confinement in the Hospital. “It is probable the most intelligent and ingenious girls, who have had some education, and remain with some impression of religion on their minds, will be the first and always the most ready to accept the invitation which is given them.” He suggested close contact with the Lock Hospital where venereal disease was treated to check the background and likely sincerity of those seeking admittance to the Magdalen Hospital for he believed that those who had contracted the disease through prostitution, when cured, “generally returned to their former course as a dog to the vomit, or as a beast is driven to the slaughter house.” The emphasis for admission was to be on penitence rather than penury.
It appears though that in the early years of the Hospital these selection criteria were not applied, though as we have seen above, by 1823 they were. Neither was Hanway’s suggestion of a system of separating the women into preferential wards according to their appearance, deportment and education though by the mid 1780s such a system was in place and there was a part of the Hospital for women of a “better order”. Upon admission, the women were placed in a probationary ward for two months after which time they were brought before the Committee, a report of their behaviour made by the Chaplain, Matron and Assistant Matron. Depending on this they were then placed in one of the other wards suitable to their status or dismissed from the Hospital. Jonas Hanway clearly divided prostitutes into the “virtuous” and the “vicious” and so whilst the Magdalen Charity was established to help prostitutes, there were clearly grades of prostitute.'
It is fascinating to ponder which of our own charitable efforts and ideas will be viewed in retrospect as being patronising, even insulting and degrading!