Rescued Lives? ‘Fallen women’ and their ‘rescuers’ in Victorian Society

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Prostitution was identified as the ‘Great Social Evil’ in Victorian society and women defined as prostitutes were perceived with both revulsion and pity. The image of the prostitute as a powerless, and therefore forgivable character justified interventions of reform and encouraged the establishment in 1758 of the first rescue home for ‘fallen women’, the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes in London. Societies concerned with the reclamation of ‘fallen’ women had mushroomed during the second half of the nineteenth century: in 1856 there were 60 such societies in Britain and by 1906 this had increased to 308.  William Gladstone was known for his help of ‘fallen women’ and Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens were involved in the Urania Cottage rescue home.

magdalen hospital 1812

The Magdalen Hospital, London, c. 1812

 The success of rescue homes depended upon their potential clientele showing both an active recognition of their ‘wrongdoing’ and a passive compliance to their rehabilitation.  Paula Bartley has argued that many rescue homes enforced stringent criteria for the admittance, discipline and redemption of ‘fallen’ women which was frequently directed by a patriarchal regime. Some large rescue institutions across Britain adopted punitive and humiliating regimes and, in the early nineteenth century, even shaved off their inmates’ hair to discourage escape or disobedience. Linda Mahood argues that rescue homes favoured admitting young women, generally under 24, without police records or a tendency to inebriation.   Some institutions such as the Salvation Army followed a more open policy of admittance and the Mayfair Union would admit any girl ‘who is anything like sober’.

Workhouses across Britain regarded many of their female inmates as prostitutes and some of these women, generally the younger ones, were offered place in ‘rescue’ establishments, see my post about one such woman, Dorcas Carr. In Swansea, Lady Vivian opened the Cwmdonkin Shelter, a home for ‘the reclamation of fallen and abandoned women’ in 1887. The Shelter was at this time established in temporary accommodation in Cwmdonkin Park and later relocated to various addresses in Swansea.  During the twentieth century the Shelter continued to house single mothers until its closure in 1972.


Annual Report for 1905-6, this is the size and shape of a cheque book, probably designed to make subscribers think of writing a cheque!

A Cwmdonkin Shelter Ladies’ Sub-Committee was responsible for policy making and the practical day-to-day running of the Shelter. Overall management was undertaken by the General Committee, which was composed of both men and women.    At their first meeting in September 1887, eleven women were elected to the Ladies’ Committee.  They lived in middle-class areas of Swansea and most were married to leading figures of Swansea civic society.

These women wielded considerable power over those they sought to rescue, all of whom would be ‘sent’ elsewhere.  Some were returned to friends or family: In 1887 a woman was ‘sent home to her uncle’ and in 1889, Jane Parry was described as being ‘returned to her friends’.   It is not recorded whether these friends or family were investigated to ascertain their suitability for the care of vulnerable women, and some refuges had policies of ‘quarantining’ their charges from suspect friends and family.   Many women who passed through Cwmdonkin Shelter were referred to other rescue establishments in Wales and London.

The referral of women to emigration agencies was an option used by the Ladies’ Committee on many occasions.  There was a shortage of servants in the colonies and standards were perceived to be lower and more flexible: a doyenne of rescue recounted that ‘not so much is expected of servants; life is freer, rougher and therefore more suited to them’.   The Cambrian newspaper had earlier strongly advocated emigration to relocate the ‘unfortunates’ to Canada where ‘they might soon become virtuous wives’.  There is no discussion of the ethics of emigration in the Ladies’ Committee Minute Book or indeed whether the women who were ‘sent’ for emigration actively chose that route.

However, in the 1906 annual report a letter was received from Mary in Canada, 23 years after she had been in Cwmdonkin Shelter. She wrote that she had never been sorry to come to Canada and she went on to say, ‘I am very glad to tell you that I have a good home, a good husband and very nice children’. It was also reported that she had sent ‘a photo of herself and family. Letters such as these are a problematic source for the historian; It was not unknown for letters purporting to be written by former happy inmates of philanthropic institutions to be made up and the camera can of course lie. However the photo below, if a true representation of Mary, demonstrates that some nineteenth-century emigration resulted in a happy new life.

1905 6

Employment of a domestic nature was thought suitable for women leaving all rescue homes and this was reflected by the Committee placing women primarily as domestic servants or laundry workers.   This was a problematic initiative as domestic service was perceived to be a recruiting ground for prostitution. Frederick Merrick, chaplain of Millbank Prison in London had found that out of 16,000 alleged prostitutes he interviewed, nearly half had been domestic servants.   Although the Shelter boosted its income through laundry and needlework services, there is no record of girls being trained as dressmakers, nor shop assistants, just servants.

The Ladies’ Committee also worked in the wider community.  They initiated a proactive campaign to ‘recruit’ girls from Swansea workhouse and the prison and visited the ‘low parts of town’. An emergency night refuge was also provided although it was thought the venture would be likely to be abused unless ‘very wisely managed’.   In 1895 Mrs Roberts Jones was employed as a ‘mission worker’, four months later it was recorded that she had visited the police court 93 times. Mrs Roberts Jones also successfully persuaded the magistrate to allow time for fines to be paid rather than send women to gaol; it appears to have been a popular initiative as the fines were all paid.

Night classes were also established 4 nights a week at the Ragged School ‘for recreation and instruction’. One of the reasons given for these classes was, ‘Oftentimes the want of healthful and instructive amusement was the occasion of young girls taking to evil ways’. The classes appear to have very popular: there were 200 names on the book, with a nightly attendance of about 90. Two years later in 1891 a ‘Girls Club’ attracted 50-60 girls.


Swansea Ragged School

What happened to women after they left the Shelter?  As with Mary in Canada above, much was made of letters received from former inmates in the Minute Book and in annual reports.  Extracts from encouraging letters were published in annual reports, and most were written with evangelical gratitude or ‘cheerfully and gratefully’ according to the Fourth Annual Report. The Minute Book records several optimistic letters being received, but does not go into any detail.  Although it was hoped that the Shelter would become ‘self-supporting by means of a Laundry and a Workroom’, the high costs of clothing the girls, fees for permanent homes and railway fares made the Shelter financially unviable without charitable donations.

The annual reports also acted as an advertising platform to generate sympathy for the cause to sustain and increase subscriptions, and letters from girls who thanked the Shelter for ‘saving’ them, no doubt promoted the notion that rescuing ‘fallen women’ was a legitimate philanthropic objective.  Although the vast majority of women defined as prostitutes never entered any rescue home, letters received from former inmates of Cwmdonkin Shelter indicate that possibly some women felt they had benefited from their stay and their lives had improved subsequently.

Did the women of the Ladies’ Committee also benefit from their involvement with the Shelter?  The notion of middle-class women being barred from the public and sexual sphere was waived if it involved philanthropic participation.  The Ladies’ Committee not only undertook the administrative and policy-making duties of the Shelter, but engaged in discussions of prostitution considered inappropriate for respectable women. They also knew when it was advisable to take a step back and their visible control of the running of the Shelter within the ‘private’ confines of all-women meetings was not replicated at the ‘public’, male-dominated Annual General Meetings, where they stayed (and were placed) very much in the background.

The Ladies’ Committee also rarely followed their male colleagues’ evangelical pronouncements.  The Minute Book records simply that girls had left or run away; at the first AGM, it was reported these girls having ‘returned to their evil life’.   Entries in the minute book concerning girls ‘met at prison’ or at the police court are also in direct contrast to the melodramatic language used in the Second Annual Report such as ‘it has been our privilege to snatch [girls] from their evil surroundings’.

Participation in philanthropic work was a class and gender expectation of middle-class women and most of the Ladies’ Committee demonstrated a long term commitment to the Shelter.  Concern and tolerance is prevalent throughout the Minute Book as is genuine pleasure of their ‘successes’.  Although they strived to impart middle-class values on working-class women, they should not be categorised solely as privileged, leisured ladies dispensing charity and patronage.  They knew how to manipulate the unwritten rules of philanthropy and played the ‘lady-like’ game of invisibility at public meetings in order to emerge from the domestic sphere and into the very public locus of prostitution, enabling a vicarious, but safe engagement with the ‘dark side’ of sexuality.

 The word prostitute is rarely used in anything other than a derogatory way. Poor women in the nineteenth century had few career options and most were unpleasant. Some women used their only saleable commodity to avoid starvation and many women became prostitutes because of alcoholism or despair. Some women actively chose prostitution as a profession and later went on to marry and lead ‘normal’ lives. Prostitution may be unacceptable to some of us but a look at this poor, poor woman’s face shows that the alternative was often even worse.


‘The Crawlers’, John Thomson, Street Life in London, 1877

Works used:

Paula  Bartley, Prostitution, Prevention and Reform in England, 1860-1914 (London: Routledge, 2000).

Linda Mahood, The Magdalenes, Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1990).

Harriet Nokes, Twenty-Three Years in a House of Mercy (London, 1888).

F. K. Prochaska, Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, Women, Class and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

Sources used:

The minute books of Cwmdonkin Shelter are located in the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University. Annual reports can be found both in Swansea Central Library and Swansea Museum.


6 thoughts on “Rescued Lives? ‘Fallen women’ and their ‘rescuers’ in Victorian Society

  1. ‘Oftentimes the want of healthful and instructive amusement was the occasion of young girls taking to evil ways’.
    That comment in your very interesting piece struck a chord with me because it reminded me of a speech I came across, given by the Bishop of London on a visit to Gretna munitions factory in 1917. He told the female workforce there – many of them in their teens – that the greatest danger they faced in munitions work was the ‘moral danger’ they faced outside the factory. Similarly, social reformers and factory officials sought to organise Girls Clubs and factory-based leisure to keep them ‘out of mischief’ when not at work. Those fears were fuelled by working class women having, theoretically, surplus money to spend in the war years and not because they were necessarily in poverty. The association with working class women and sexual danger was clearly carried into the 20th century.

  2. One rarely if ever thinks about prostitution in the 18th/19th centuries, but after reading this post it would seem that it was more prevalent and degrading in what was a so called civilized country then than it is now.
    What a sad testament to those times, and the men that governed.
    Thank you for an interesting post..

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