Memorial for women treated as Glasgow’s ‘dirty secret’

The Magdalene Institutions put 'fallen women' on the path of redemption through hard work and sobriety. PIC: Creative Commons.
The Magdalene Institutions put 'fallen women' on the path of redemption through hard work and sobriety. PIC: Creative Commons.
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A memorial is being planned for thousands of woman locked away and treated as Glasgow’s “dirty secret” following a 19th century crackdown on rising venereal disease, prostitution and declining moral character.

The women were institutionalised as part of the Glasgow System, which brought together police, the medical profession, churches and the local authority to tackle the ills of the city.

Women were sent to the old Lock Hospital in Rottenrow for treatment for venereal disease. It was built to look like an ordinary Glasgow tenement. Picture: TSPL.

Women were sent to the old Lock Hospital in Rottenrow for treatment for venereal disease. It was built to look like an ordinary Glasgow tenement. Picture: TSPL.

The high rates of servicemen infected with VD was a key concern of the day – but the system only ever targeted women who were considered to be the carriers and spreaders of the infection. Women could now be forced to undergo an intimate examination by a plain clothes policeman tasked to seek out women of dubious repute.

Those found to be infected had their heads shaved and were sent the Lock Hospital in Rottenrow, where a brutal array of treatments, such as mercury baths to treat syphilis, was administered.

Meanwhile, thousands of disease-free ‘fallen women’ – including prostitutes, socialists and single mothers – were sent to Lochburn House in Maryhill. Home to the Magdalene Institution, women were redeemed through hard work, industrial training and sobriety.

It is on the site of the old Lochburn House, which is now demolished, that Linda Thompson, of the Glasgow-based Women’s Support Network, wants a memorial garden to be planted.

Lochburn House in Maryhill, Glasgow, home to the Magdalene Institution. PIC: Glasgow Caledonian University Archives.

Lochburn House in Maryhill, Glasgow, home to the Magdalene Institution. PIC: Glasgow Caledonian University Archives.

Ms Thompson said: “The history of these thousands of women must now be acknowledged. It is as if their voices, their whole existence, has been wiped. It’s as if is what happened to these women is a dirty secret in Glasgow.”

The Lock Hospital, which opened in 1806, was built to look like an everyday Glasgow tenement in the heart of the then red light district.

The 1808 annual report, which was delivered at the city’s Tontine Tavern to its male-only board, gives some insight into the hospital operation. A total of 54 out of 57 women had been “cured” during the year but women had been turned away for treatment given the hospital only had 11 beds. At the tavern, there was “great pleasure” to report that none of the women had died that year or escaped from the hospital.

The board also expressed its hope that sending the women to the Magdalene Institution following treatment would stop them from returning to their “vicious habit”.

Research by librarian Anna Forrest, formerly with the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, earlier unearthed another connection between the two institutions.

She discovered how children as young as seven were admitted to The Lock with VD, including Annie Ellen McGuire. She arrived with Elisabeth Martin, nine, from the Magdalene in Maryhill and neither girl left the hospital alive. While the girls may have been infected during pregnancy, Mrs Forrest believes they may have been used in the “abominable superstition” that sex with a young virgin could cure a sexually transmitted disease.

The Magdalene Institution was closed down after 27 women aged between 15 and 19 broke out of the home amid claims of beatings and verbal abuse in September 1958.

Ms Thompson said: “If you look at the women going into Lochburn House, it was often very young, working class women and women coming from poverty. These women had not done anything wrong or commit crimes.”

Ms Thompson is now working with local councillors on her plans for the memorial garden.

Author Theresa Talbot, whose book The Lost Children is a fictionalised account of life in Lochburn House, said: “This memorial to the women incarcerated is long overdue - they’ll never have the justice they deserve, but we can ensure that they’ll never be forgotten. A garden will be such a fitting tribute - a place of calm and peace and beauty where they can be remembered.”