Journal Volume 6 2010

‘Wild, Ideal, Romantic and Absurd’: Lady Arbella Denny and the Establishment of Dublin’s First Magdalen Asylum (continued/4)

The speaker in this context, however, could be referring to vocational rather than academic training – indeed, in terms of future employment prospects, practical skills were arguably of more relevance than a literary education. Just over twenty per cent of magdalens are recorded as possessing some such expertise, most frequently in ‘plain work’ or ‘coarse’ sewing. A minority had more specialist skills, such as knitting, quilting, spinning and ‘making trimmings for ladies’ clothes’, and inmates included a pastry cook, a silk winder, a glove-maker, a stay-maker, two milliners and ten mantua makers. A few were ‘skilled in country business’, such as dairy work, and six were described as chambermaids or servants. Less conventionally, one individual claimed to have served for five years as a sailor. Thus, the great majority of the women on whom information is available had been engaged either in the clothing and textile industries or, to a lesser extent, in domestic service. These were the principal areas of female employment: jobs in these sectors were poorly paid and insecure, those engaged in them were particularly vulnerable to homelessness and destitution, and were consequently easy recruits to the vice trade, which might offer a substitute or a supplementary income at times of need.25

Certainly, on the basis of the information supplied by the records, many magdalens were in extremely poor circumstances on admission. Jane King from Sligo, for instance, was reported to be able to read and write and do needlework ‘very well’, but owned no more than a ragged black gown and petticoat, Mary Byrne came in with a ragged stuff gown, a rag to tie round her waist and an old shift, while Mary Cotton ‘brought nothing with her but what was so bad there was a necessity of burning them’. Others, however, came from a more stable and moderately prosperous background: Elizabeth McCleary, for instance, was the daughter of shoemakers in High Street, to whom she went on departure. Elizabeth Keating went to live with her mother, a mantua maker, and Hester Herrold was received by her brother, a hatter in Exchequer Street. A minority had families or friends who could afford to pay for their keep in the House or provide for them financially on departure: Catherine Robinson, who was ‘descended of a good family’, had her board paid by her friends, and Arabella Russell had friends in England, ‘who sent for her and remitted money for accommodating her properly … on her passage’. She was later reported to be ‘in the way of a speedy marriage to great advantage’. A very few brought with them an array of possessions suggesting either an unusually lucrative past career or a wealthy family background: Harriet Reuberry, for example, brought an extensive wardrobe, as well as jewellery, silver teaspoons and thirteen books. Mary Thompson had a consignment of belongings transported from Waterford, which included a riding dress and hat and no fewer than ten gowns, and Jane Langton owned a red silk gown, a white riding costume and a hat with a feather, as well as other effects.

While middle-class women did become prostitutes – the celebrated Margaret Leeson, for example, was the daughter of a gentleman landowner26 – it is by no means clear that all magdalens had been on the streets or had been engaged in prostitution at any level. The House was later to cater specifically for ‘young women after a first fall’, and it is likely that even at this stage some of those entering fell into this category. Indeed, in a small number of cases the inmates were not ‘fallen’ in any sense: Maria Nugent, for instance, was admitted in 1783, having been ‘deceived by a gentleman who married her, having another wife’. Two other women chose to enter the asylum purely as a means of obtaining shelter and training. On Elinor Caugh’s discharge after two years’ stay, ‘it was discovered that her friends persuaded her to take the character of a Magdalen to come here for support, and instruction in needlework and reading’. Similarly, on Mary Roche’s departure, ‘it was discovered that distress and a desire to be instructed in needlework were her only motives for coming to this House’.

It is possibly significant that both Caugh and Roche were recorded as Catholics. The first Catholic school for poor girls in Dublin was opened by Teresa Mulally in 1766, but it was only with the expansion of the female religious orders in the next century that such establishments became widespread, and it may be that the lack of any alternative forced these two women to what was surely a highly unusual course of action. Their histories illustrate the inadequacy of the educational and training facilities available to girls, and the absolute necessity of possessing some marketable skill by which they could support themselves. They are also a reminder of the pressures which had driven the majority of their fellow magdalens to resort to prostitution, and of the narrowness of the line dividing vice and respectability. Lack of employment or of familial support, a single lapse from virtue, or desertion by a husband or partner – any of these might leave a woman with a stark choice between starvation and prostitution, and even those guilty of no more than ignorance or imprudence could find their reputation and status irretrievably damaged.


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