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Book of the Month

November 2000

The Fifth annual report of the Magdalene Institution, Glasgow

Glasgow: 1865

Sp Coll BG54-c.11

front cover

The fifth annual report by the Directors of the Glasgow Magdalene Institution is an interesting and important historical document. Dating from December 1864 the title page states that the report was submitted at the meeting of subscribers on the twenty eighth of December, and was Printed at the Reformatory Institution, Duke Street 1865. This is one of two annual reports held by the Special Collections department.

imprint from title-page

The Magdalene Institution has a long and interesting history. The original Glasgow Magdalene Asylum was set up in 1812 in response to increasing worries regarding prostitution, venereal diseases and the moral health of the country. For the powers that be the obvious way to combat these ills was to incarcerate women, not in a punitive institution but in a 'voluntary' institution such as the Magdalene Asylum. As the biblical reference in the name suggests the institute was based on the premise that these women could be redeemed and 'saved' from their life of immorality and possible early death. The women in the asylum were generally termed as prostitutes; however, it should be noted that this term was used in a very loose manner encompassing not only women who sold sex for money but also single mothers, socialists, mill girls and girls dressed 'immorally'.

In 1859 the Magdalene Asylum evolved into the Magdalene Institution, and, as a result of the Glasgow System became increasingly busy. The term Glasgow System encompasses the Contagious Diseases Act (whereby a woman could be forced by plain clothes policemen to be tested for venereal diseases; if she refused, she could be brought in front of court having to prove that she did not sleep with men), the Lock Hospital (where women were treated for venereal diseases and were presumed to be 'prostitutes') and the Magdalene Institute. The Magdalene had specific criteria for their entrants in that they had to be free from syphilis, not pregnant, to be newly 'fallen' and willing to submit to discipline. The women were taught how to support themselves honestly through industrial training, mostly working in laundries in the institute. A very strong emphasis was placed on Christianity, partly in order to make the ladies realise that they were sinners. Emphasis was also placed on self-sacrifice and duty, therefore paralleling Victorian class hierarchy, sanctioned female inferiority and self-abrogation. The inmates through industrial work and religion would 'learn' their appropriate class and gender roles.

beginning of report: page five

report: pages six & seven

The first page in the report notes that the Repressive or Preventative branch will be given prominence. The Lord Provost and Magistrates had been approached concerning the checking of the ordinary forms of moral nuisance with the Institute calling for the abolition of the Glasgow Fair or at least the shows. The reasoning given was that the fair and shows together had been found the occasion and the means of multiplying the incentives to evil and the victims of crime. The Directors held the opinion that It has subjected the youth of the country to corrupting influences and increased the demoralization of the city. The report continues to elucidate on the obnoxious and flagrant character of the Glasgow Fair with its lack of morals and corruptive qualities. The report also looks at the remedial and reformatory measures of the Institution stating that the Society has been instrumental in redeeming, from a lifetime of misery and infamy, those who, humanly speaking, but for its interposition would have been left to perish.

report: pages eight & nine

The report also considers various points affecting our social wellbeing namely the characteristics of the women in the Institution. It is noted that many of women are orphans, destitute, victim to the terrible influence of intemperance and were also of a very low cast. The report discusses each one of these characteristics in turn and interestingly highlights the class bias of the Magdalene. The report notes that few of the applicants belong to the better educated and better provided for classes stating that It is gratifying to find that comparatively few who have enjoyed the advantages of a Christian home fall into this sin; and we see in this circumstance the inestimable value of early moral training as a safeguard to female character.

report & beginning of Appendix A: pages ten and eleven

extract from Appendix A

The appendices also make interesting reading. Appendix A details the profiles of the inmates stating when they entered the home, when they were led astray, their profession after leaving the Institution and their church attendance. Appendix B provides statistics regarding the women in the Institute. Details are given of the women, for example, parentage, when first led astray, age when admitted, previous employment and if they had been in the Lock Hospital.

extract from Appendix A

extract from Appendix A

As an historical document this is a very interesting and useful pamphlet. However, its purpose should be taken into consideration. This is an annual report by the Directors to be submitted at a meeting of subscribers - philanthropists who have given money to the Institute and who would hopefully continue to donate. Therefore, the Institute would only ever be shown in a favourable light, doing good works to save victims of 'prostitution'.

Notably, until late 1958 'wayward girls' were being placed in the Magdalene Institute in its final incarnation in Maryhill. Women were placed here by parents or probation officers and were subject to moral and general education and industrial training. In September 1958 the Glasgow Herald reported women escaping from the Institute, alleging ill treatment. The matter was looked into by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the institution was closed shortly after.

beginning of Appendix B


Special Collections houses several other interesting items relating to the Magdalene Institute. The Fourteenth Annual Report by the Directors of the Glasgow Magdalene Institute, 1873 BG54-c.11, includes details of a typical day in the Institute. Also A sermon delivered at Glasgow, on Thursday, February 9th, 1815, on the opening of the Magdalene Asylum by Stevenson Macgill D.D, Professor of Divinity in the University of Glasgow Mu22-c.5. An excellent thesis The "Magdalene’s Friend": The Control of Prostitutes in Glasgow, 1840-1890 by Linda Mahood, thesis number 7913.

Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page

 Lynne Dent November 2000