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Magdalen (2)

The Magdalen Hospital

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.  

Magdalen Hospital 2 (2)

By the middle of the 18th century there was a growing awareness of the plight of prostitutes within London and plans for creating a Charity to give them help were put forward by various philanthropists, notably Jonas Hanway and John Fielding.  The following is an extract from Jonas Hanway’s Plan:


“Noble and extensive are the charities already established in this Metropolis; unfortunate Females seem the only objects who have not yet catched the attention of public benevolence: but we doubt not, it will appear on reflection, a task of as great compassion and consequence, necessity and advantage, to provide a place of reception for them, as for any under the protection of the public.


"Humanity, with its utmost efforts, pleads their cause more powerfully than any thing which can be offered on the subject; and it is obvious to every mind, from its own experience, that there cannot be greater objects of compassion, than poor, young, thoughtless Females, plunged into ruin by those temptations, to which their very youth and personal advantages expose then, no less than those passions implanted in our nature for wife and good ends. Surrounded by snares, the most artfully and industriously laid, snares, laid by those endowed with superior faculties, and all the advantages of education and fortune; what virtue can be proof against such formidable seducers, who offer to commonly, and to profusely promise, to transport the thoughtless girls from want, confinement, and restraint of passions, to luxury, liberty, gaiety, and joy?  And when once seduced, how soon their golden dreams vanish! Abandoned by the seducer, deserted by their friends, condemned by the world, they are left to struggle with want, despair, and scorn; and even in their own defence to plunge deeper and deeper in sin, till disease and death conclude a miserable being.


"It is too well known, that this is the case and with most of the Prostitutes in their several degrees, sooner or later, from those pampered in private stews, to the common dregs infecting our streets: and that far the greatest part of those who have taken to this dreadful life, are thus seeking disease, death, and eternal destruction, not through choice, but necessity.  The seeds of virtue would exert themselves; but, alas, the possibility is removed. The same necessity obliging them to prey on the unwary, diffuses the contagion; propagating profligacy, and spreading ruin, disease, and death, almost through the whole human species.  



"What act of benevolence, then, can be greater, than to give these real objects of compassion an opportunity to reclaim, and recover themselves from their otherwise lost state; and opportunity to become … useful members of society, as it is not doubted many of them may and will?”


The prostitute as sentimentalised, almost romantic, naive victim appears curious, she seems to have stepped out of an 18th century novel.  Tony Henderson (see Sources below) states that some writers of that time believed that prostitutes came from respectable but impoverished lower middle class families but the reality was that most prostitutes came from the poorest sections of society.  Many of these women were dependent on seasonal work or work subject to slumps and had no alternative but to turn to prostitution when they were unable to get work to feed themselves and often their families. This way of life was so common as to be acceptable in the poor sections of society.  In reality, the majority of prostitutes were not a victim of a combination of her own folly and an individual seducer but a victim of grinding, crippling and ceaseless poverty and want that left her no other choice.  


Undoubtedly though large numbers of seduced, tricked and deserted women who, because they had contravened the moral code were abandoned by their families, did turn to prostitution in desperation, or were very nearly tempted into it.   In 1823 they were described by the Hospital as never having been “in public prostitution but fly to the Magdalen to avoid it … to such especially this house of refuge opens wide its doors; and instead of being driven by despair to lay violent hands on themselves, and to superadd the crime of self murder to that guilt which is the cause of their distress, or of being forced by the strong call of hunger into prostitution, they find a safe and quiet retreat in this abode of peace and reflection. ... The Committee generally give these young women the preference because they are almost certain of the best consequences.”


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.


To be admitted to the Hospital, a Form of Petition was completed by the Steward (later called the Clerk) from information given to him by the Petitioner which was presented to the Committee that sat monthly on a Thursday.  The petition carried a full confession and statement of penitence “that the Petitioner has been guilty of prostitution, and is truly sensible of her offence, which has plunged her into the greatest distress, and rendered her destitute of every means of getting an honest livelihood.”  The petition was anonymised as the Steward allocated to number to it, and this number was called when the applicant was called for interview by the Committee.  The decision whether an applicant was admitted was decided by a vote of Committee members.  Before this the petitioner was examined by a nurse, and a surgeon if necessary, and if found to be infected with a ‘foul disease’ was refused admittance, but allowed to reapply at a later date if she obtained a cure.  Pregnant women were also refused entry.  There were about 20-30 applications per month but due to shortage of room, very few were admitted.  Between the years of 1762 and 1848 the number of inmates was between 52 and 113.  


Many of the applicants were very young, some as young as 13 or 14, and priority was given to their admission.  In general the average age of an inmate was 17 or 18, indeed Jonas Hanway in his Plan laid down that women over the age of 30 should not be admitted as the Hospital should not become an asylum for old women.



In overall charge of the inmates was the Matron whose duties included seeing “that all women are neat and decent in their apparel and persons; that they are duly employed, and behave in an orderly and religious manner, and that they constantly attend divine service … She makes reports to the Committee weekly of the behaviour and conduct of the women.” The Matron had two, later three, assistants, who observed the women’s tempers and dispositions “and whether they appear to be worthy objects of the charity; what offices in life they are most fit for; … to communicate just sentiments, and encourage sober conversation, and a regular and pious behaviour.”   Bad behaviour was not tolerated in the Hospital and of the 1637 inmates who had been in residence between 1758 and Christmas 1775, 255 were “dismissed for irregularities, amongst which want of temper has been the common evil.”  

The women wore a uniform of light grey dresses “and in their whole dress plain and neat.”  They were instructed in reading and the principles of Christian religion.  They were employed in needlework or house-keeping according to their abilities.  They made household linens of all kinds, shirts, shifts, knitting, mending and learned domestic work to qualify them for service.  By 1801 it was reported that many potential employers required laundering skills so gradually these were added to the training and the laundry became an important income to the Hospital’s funds.  And “in their work, as in every circumstance, the utmost propriety and humanity are observed; all loose or idle discourse, sluttishness, indolence, or neglect of moral or religious duties are closely attended to; and if these are not in the degree to occasion a discharge, they are at least severely reprehended.”

Stanley Nash (see Sources below) believes the treatment of the inmates of the Magdalen prefigured the system of penal incarceration being devised by John Howard in the 1770s. The women were “systematically stripped of their former identity through an enforced anonymity” as they were encouraged to take new names and probing into an inmate’s past was forbidden.   The regime, says Nash, was about ensuring a woman’s submission.  


Nevertheless, of the 1637 inmates who had been resident between the years 1758 and 1775, after discounting those who had left the Hospital of their own accord or who had died, there were 943 inmates who it was claimed “the conductors of the charity have had the happiness to see reconciled to, and received by friends, or placed in services in reputable families and to trades.”  Between 1758 and 1823 this figure was 3,401 out of a total admittance of 5,058.


William Dodd, who played a large part in the early years of the Hospital, was a charismatic and fashionable preacher.  He became a preacher, amongst his other duties, at the Magdalen Hospital when it was still in Whitechapel.  He was an extravagant man and speculated wildly, and in attempt to clear his debts forged a bond for £4,200 in 1777.  He was arrested, convicted of forgery and sentenced to death.  Despite a petition that was signed by around 23,000 people, he was hanged at Tyburn, the last man to be hung for the crime of forgery in England.


By the middle of the nineteenth century, Blackfriars Road was no longer considered a suitable setting for the Hospital.  Since the Hospital had been built, there had been a great deal of building in the area including factories which caused heavy pollution.  The middle class residents of the large houses in the Blackfriars Road area had now moved out to the suburbs and commuted back to the city for work by train, their houses usually split up into tenements let out to multiple tenants, which, combined with more new building, led to the area becoming overcrowded.  The area also became rife with prostitution.  So the Hospital built new premises in Streatham and the Blackfriars Road site sold to the Peabody Trust.  In 1934 the Hospital became an Approved School and 50 of the 75 places were filled with young women sent there by the courts.  Four years later the words ‘for Penitent Prostitutes’ were dropped from the Hospital’s title.  The School closed in 1966 and the land sold to Lambeth Council for housing.  The Magdalen Hospital Trust was formed from the proceeds of the sale and the work continues in a different form.  The following is from



“The Trust no longer offers residential support itself but makes grants to promote the welfare of young people (of both genders), under the age of 25 years, who suffer from various effects of social deprivation, abuse, mental and physical handicap, inadequate housing, lack of education or training, and the problems derived from unemployment and broken families.”





William Dodd, An Account of the Use Progress and Present State of the Magdalen Hospital, (1776)

Jonas Hanway, A Plan for establishing a Charity House, or charity houses for the reception of repenting prostitutes to be called the Magdalen Charity (1758)

Byelaws and regulations of the Magdalen Hospital (1816)

A Short Account of the Magdalen Hospital (1823)


Sarah Lloyd, ‘ Pleasure’s Golden Bait’:  Prostitution, Poverty and the Magdalen Hospital in Eighteenth-Century London:  History workshop Journal, No. 41 (Spring 1996)  pp 50-70

Tony Henderson, Disorderly Women in 18th century London:  Prostitution and Control in the Metropolis 1730-1830 (1999)

Stanley Nash, Prostitution and Charity:  the Magdalen Hospital, A Case Study:  Journal of Social History, vol 17, No. 4 (Summer 1984) pp 617-628

S B P Pearce, An Ideal in the Working:  the story of the Magdalen Hospital 1758-1958 (1958)


Note: This article was previously included in my previous website 'Bankside Then and Now' not currently online.