Preventive, Penitentiary and Magdalen Homes

Girls and women who had 'fallen', especially those who became pregnant as a result, often became outcasts because of the shame they had brought on their families. Despite the circumstances that led many unfortunate young women into pregnancy, such as seduction under the promise of marriage, little distinction was made in the eyes of many between single mothers and prostitutes. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the rescue and reform of young women in either situation became a major concern of charitable and religious groups, with a large number of establishments known as Magdalen (or Magdalene) Homes being set up to accommodate them.

Organizations operating Magdalen Homes included the Salvation Army, Church Army, Ladies' Association for the Care of Friendless Girls, the Church Penitentiary Association, the Female Aid Society, the Roman Catholic Church, and many independent local charities. Some offered temporary accommodation, usually free, while others required a stay of one or two years, with a weekly fee payable and work demanded. These long-stay homes were often known as penitentiaries, the aim being the moral reform of their penitent inmates. The short-term establishments, sometimes referred to as Houses of Refuge, could also act as probationary accommodation prior to entry into a Magdalen Home.

One of the earliest Magdalen institutions was London's Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes, established in 1758 at 21 Prescot Street, Whitechapel – then a very insalubrious location with many brothels and drinking houses. Despite its name, the Hospital was not a medical facility. It received girls and women, below the age of 30, who had entered into prostitution but wished to reform, especially those who had not long 'fallen'. The inmates of the institution were occupied in laundry work and needlework and given religious instruction. The institution eventually became an Approved School prior to its closure in the 1960s.

The Church Penitentiary Association, which was affiliated with the Church of England, was founded in 1852 'for the reformation of fallen women who have been servants or others'. By 1889, the Association's member institutions included 40 Penitentiaries, with accommodation for 1250, and 36 Houses of Refuge, with accommodation for 247 penitents.

Laundry work was the most common type of labour performed by the inmates of Magdalen Homes. Although Magdalen laundries have become particularly associated with Ireland, they existed all across the British Isles. As well as dealing with the Home's own laundry, washing was usually taken in from households in the locality to contribute towards the running of the establishment. Apart from its practical use in providing work for the inmates, and an income for the institution, laundry work was also seen as having a symbolic dimension, signifying cleansing and purification. In addition to work, the girls were expected to receive religious instruction and to attended services each day.

Girls and nuns in a laundry. © Peter Higginbotham

In the United Kingdom, the term 'Magdalen Home' had fallen out of use by the Second World War, although many of the established previously referred to by that name were still in operation, often renamed as Training Homes.

Because of their large number, the catalogue of Magdalen Homes is split into a number of sections, listed below: