Journal Volume 6 2010

‘Wild, Ideal, Romantic and Absurd’: Lady Arbella Denny and the Establishment of Dublin’s First Magdalen Asylum (continued/6)

A typical magdalen (London) in 1766The House authorities clearly disbelieved Stephens’s story, and in general insisted that magdalens should have a respectable home or means of support awaiting them on departure, in the belief that this would be some guarantee of continued good behaviour. So Lady Arbella noted of one former magdalen that, while her ‘understanding is not very strong’ and ‘she wants industry’, her intentions were good, and ‘as her kindred have received her, I think she may do well with them’. While some were restored to family or friends, others supported themselves by doing needlework, either on their own account ‘in a creditable lodging’, or more rarely in a workshop environment: Ann Maria Hoey, for instance, ‘went to work with a woman … who employs them at the tambour’.  The great majority, however, went into domestic service, often on the recommendation, and sometimes in the employment of lady supporters of the charity. The preference for service was in part a response to market forces: female employment in the needle trades was already in decline at this period, while demand for women servants was on the increase. 28 However, service may also have been regarded by the House authorities as a safer option, placing the former magdalen under supervision in a respectable environment and thereby minimizing the possibility of a relapse into vice.

Another option available to women leaving the House was emigration. The registers list twenty-three former inmates as having gone to North America during this period, one of whom was originally from Boston and chose to return there following her time in the House. Two of these travelled as paying passengers, but most of those who emigrated probably did so as indentured servants, in some cases having had their indenture fees and other expenses paid by the charity. When Elizabeth Gogan, whose family had disowned her, went to Maryland in 1769 she was given clothes and books, 1s 1d was paid for her indenture and 2s 2d for a coach and boat to bring her to the ship. Maria Nugent, who sailed in 1788 for New York, was given, in addition to the usual articles of clothing and twelve books of Dr Skelton’s Appeal to Common Sense, ‘a pair of mattresses for her to lie on at sea’, and the proceeds, totalling £19 8s 2d, of a collection made for her among lady supporters of the House.

While a few women travelled alone, most did so in company with another magdalen or as part of a larger group: in October 1773, for instance, a group of ten left the House at the same time to go to America. The outbreak of war with Britain temporarily put a stop to emigration, but between 1783 and 1795 a further ten women are listed as having gone to America, and some at least sent back word of their experience of life there. In April 1784 Lady Arbella heard from Mary Moore, who was in service with a merchant’s wife in New York and was ‘very happy’. Moore’s travelling companion, Anne Dillon, was also reported to be ‘well placed’ as a housemaid in the city.

The practice of delaying the payment of bounties until the subject’s continued good behaviour had been confirmed ensured that some record was kept of magdalens’ subsequent careers, and this indicates a reasonably high success rate among those ‘dismissed regularly’ from the Asylum. Of the total of 388 admissions in the period 1767-95, 248 fell into this category, of whom just twelve were reported to have misbehaved within two years of leaving the House. However, approximately one third of entrants left before the expiry of their term, some by their own choice, others put out of the House. Reasons for expulsion varied from apparently quite trivial misconduct to criminal conspiracy. The very first entrant, Ann Mechland, was ‘expelled for misbehaviour not conforming to the rules of the House and supposed to be out of her reason at times’. Others were ejected ‘for violence of temper and ill language’, or for disruptive behaviour: Ann Lee was expelled ‘for saying she seen a ghost and terrified all the women … it was suspected … in order to frighten some of the penitents out of the House’. A few were accused of more serious offences: Mary Dunn was put out after just a month for having planned to rob the House. Others were believed not to be sincere penitents or to be in contact with former associates: Elizabeth Calvert and Margaret Duff, both seventeen, were expelled after they were discovered talking to men out of the drying-loft window, Catherine Denison was said to have ‘sent for a woman who kept a house of ill fame and with whom she had lived’, and Esther Goin and Mary McDaniel were put out ‘for looking out of the street window … and speaking to a woman in the street of suspected ill character’.

In theory, those expelled could take with them only what they had brought into the House – in fact, a rather more compassionate regime seems to have operated. In 1776 Jane Hearn was dismissed for disrespectful behaviour towards the matron. However, ‘in compassion to her poverty’, but, ‘for example’s sake’, without the knowledge of the other women, Lady Arbella ordered that she be given a guinea when out of the House – a later note records that ‘the above money appears to have been well disposed of as she since proves industrious’. Similarly, Margaret Clark, who was ‘expelled for bad behaviour, being vulgar and ungovernable’, but who promised to go into service and remain virtuous, was given clothes and a spelling book on departure.

Despite her description of herself in 1779 as ‘a cripple’, Lady Arbella continued to be closely involved in the charity’s management until 1790, when she recorded her final entry in the register. She died two years later at the age of eighty-five, expressing in her will her regret ‘that the smallness of my fortune will not, in justice and prudence, allow me to make any donation to charities so worthy of support’ as the Foundling Hospital and the Magdalen Asylum.29 


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