A charity tackling prostitution delivered only mixed results, reports Chris Upton.
In the city of a thousand trades there was one profession which Birmingham preferred not to boast about. By 1840 there were up to 2,000 prostitutes working the town. The women concerned only came to public attention when they were arrested for disorderly behaviour or theft. Most of the time the authorities preferred to turn a blind eye. In the eyes of some magistrates and missionaries, the women who resorted to prostitution were simply “unfortunate”, and the matter rested there.
If society does not accept that there is a social problem, then little is done to address it, and that was undoubtedly the case in the early 19th Century. Only one of Birmingham’s countless charitable institutions directly sought to address the problem of prostitution. What was initially known as the Female Penitentiary had premises in Islington at the lower end of Broad Street. The object of the institution, as set out in November 1828, was:
“...by affording a suitable Asylum, and the means of religious Instruction, to reclaim from a life of sin unhappy females, professing themselves penitent, and to restore them to the paths of virtue and happiness.”
By 1829 the Penitientiary had been re-named the Magdalen Asylum, a title equally euphemistic, but a little less censorious. It was run, of course, by the Established Church, though later (especially in Ireland) the idea was taken up by the Catholics too. The Birmingham branch – there were others in Liverpool, Bristol and Worcester – was run by a matron and assistant. This was all the staff they could afford.
Inevitably, perhaps, such a charity found it considerably harder to raise funds and support from the middle classes than appeals on behalf of folk they would consider more deserving and innocent. The asylum committee’s initial choice of site fell before local objections (an early form of nimbyism), and when more acceptable premises were obtained, there were only sufficient funds to support nine women, two of whom later escaped over the back wall.
Not only was security porous and the degree of recividity high, medical care too was often poor. The annual report for 1835 refers to a number (unspecified) of deaths in the institution, though it draws ironic comfort from the fact that some of those who died did so with a changed heart. A total of 20 women were admitted in this year, of whom nine left “with credit” and five without. That is, the women probably returned to their old habits. Some attempt was made, both to give the women training, and, at the same time, to raise much-needed funds for the place. The inmates’ needlework was sold.
There was more than a touch of naivety in this practice. Needlework, at least in Birmingham, was a domestic, not an industrial skill. Knowledge of needlework alone would not give any woman financial independence, though it was one of the portfolio of domestic skills – along with cleaning and cooking – which the middle class believed essential to any female.
Finding a husband, however, given their background, would be another matter entirely. And who was likely to choose a former inmate of the Magdalen as a domestic servant? But if you wished, as many did in Birmingham, to exclude women from the factories, then there were not too many other options.
We know a little more of the Magdalen from the diaries of the Congregationalist missionary, Thomas Finigan, who records regular dealings with the place in his journals. It was Finigan’s God-given task to rescue the people of Birmingham from damnation, and that it included the town’s “fallen women”.
Typically the women Finigan rescued and took to the Magdalen were from the rural hinterland of Birmingham, had been “lured” to the town, seduced and abandoned. This, at least, is what he was told. Finnigan took Elizabeth Martin to the asylum in November 1837: “...a girl of only sixteen years of age. She has been six months on the town and driven to it by her own wicked sister, who is also an incorrigible prostitute.”
One of Finigan’s colleagues, Mr Clay, took another girl, “about 15 years of age” to the Magdalen in January 1838, after rescuing her from a court in Henrietta Street. Five months later Clay was told by her mother that the girl had escaped, “and I have reason to fear this poor unhappy girl has returned to her former unholy habits.” The missionary’s explanation for the girl’s descent into vice – we will hardly be surprised to see – perfectly clear to him. “She can neither read, knit, nor sew,” lamented Mr Clay.
Inevitably, then, the temptations of urban Birmingham remained a constant threat to the Magdalen’s hopes of rehabilitation, and a siren call back to old ways. The best solution of all was to remove the women from the town entirely. In 1835 a number of inmates were shipped off to Sydney, to begin a new life. Fares were paid by the asylum and by the Emigration Committee.
By the middle of the century, however, the town was no longer preferring to turn a blind eye to the issue. There was a Society for Friendless Girls (yet another euphemism) and the financial situation at the Magdalen Asylum had also improved. It was now able to provide medical support and shared a physician with the Birmingham Dispensary.
The asylum remained in Broad Street until 1862, when it moved to a new home – more morally watertight – at Rotton Park.