Protestant Magdalene Asylums in Scotland, 1797-1914
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date12/12/2023
Thor, Jowita A.
This thesis provides an account of the Protestant Magdalene Asylums in Scotland between 1797 and 1914. These were Christian homes that provided accommodation for, and that aimed to reform, women deemed to be in need of religious conversion and resocialisation. The Magdalene women included former prostitutes, as well as women who engaged in extra-marital sex (within and outwith relationships), who were victims of sexual and physical abuse either at home or at their workplace, who struggled with alcohol addiction, or were former prisoners. Approximately 25 such institutions existed at various times in Scotland between 1797 and 1914. Edinburgh alone had 10 Magdalene Asylums, ranging from small homes with fewer than 10 residents to big institutions with over a hundred inmates. In identifying and analysing the Magdalene Asylums, this thesis draws upon a wide range of printed and manuscript sources: annual reports, committee minutes, a matron’s diary, legislative bills, censuses, articles from local and national newspapers, pamphlets, and contemporary publications on prostitution. These were accessed online and in archives, special collections, and local history centres across Scotland, and correspondence with many other centres. The research revealed the existence of asylums not previously mentioned in other publications and meticulously reconstructed the histories of these asylums, their origins, and their complex development through the decades, often correcting the narratives found in other historians’ accounts. The thesis demonstrates that the variety of the Scottish asylums was greater than previously assumed and that the asylums hosted women from many different social groups. It shows that the Scottish Magdalene asylums were meant not only for ‘prostitutes’ or ‘fallen’ women, however broadly this is defined. Many of them also admitted women whom they did not consider ‘fallen’. The thesis divides the Scottish Magdalene asylums into three kinds (institutions, homes, and temporary shelters), reflecting the different purposes and organisational styles adopted by the philanthropists. Many of them hosted women for one to two years; however, the length of stay was always flexible, and temporary shelters offered accommodation for days or weeks. The thesis shows that many women in Magdalene Asylums were active agents and were not, contrary to our dominant contemporary narrative, incarcerated. They often used the institutions to their advantage and in ways that were contrary to the philanthropists’ intentions. The thesis exposes the complex picture of the Scottish Magdalene Asylums, which presented a spectrum of important philanthropic work supporting some of the most vulnerable women, and without forgetting the highly problematic aspects of Magdalene attitudes and policies.