The all-woman riot at a Glasgow asylum for ‘fallen women’

Inside a Magdalene Asylum where women were taught the virtues of sobriety and industry. PIC: Creative Commons.
Inside a Magdalene Asylum where women were taught the virtues of sobriety and industry. PIC: Creative Commons.
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Dressed in their distinctive uniforms of blue frocks and white aprons, 27 women staged a breakout of the Glasgow Magdalene Institution in Maryhill and scattered through the city streets 60 years ago this week.

Windows were smashed, ladders climbed and walls scaled at Lochburn House as the women- who were aged between 15 and 19 - made their escape amid claims of beatings, bullying and abuse of the verbal and emotional kind.

READ MORE: The harsh and relentless asylums for Scotland’s ‘fallen women’

Police officers were sent to round them up but as the women were returned one-by-one, further unrest erupted with the riot lasting for three days.

Details of events leading up to the protest at the Magdalene Institution for the Repression of Vice and Rehabilitation of Penitent Females are scant.

But what is known is that the action ultimately led to the closure of the home, where ‘fallen women’ - which included anyone from single mothers to sex workers and socialists - were sent for hard work and to learn the virtues of sobriety and industry.

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Author and journalist Theresa Talbot has written a fictional account of life at the Magdalene Institution in Glasgow which was closely aligned to the old Lock Hospital in Rottenrow where women with venereal disease were incarcerated.

Ms Talbot said: “What caused the break out, no one really knows. What caused them to finally say ‘enough is enough?’ I wonder what happened to give them the bravery to do that?

“The claims of abuse weren’t substantiated but the very fact that it closed down shows the institution just could not continue.

“It was a time of social change and perhaps it was regarded that it was just not appropriate to treat women like this. The women had not been found guilty of any crimes.”

Before entering Lochburn House, women had to be free from venereal disease, be newly ‘fallen’, not pregnant and willing to submit to discipline, according to research.

The Glasgow Magdalene Institution first opened in the city in 1812 with Lochburn House taking in women from 1857.

Over the next 80 years it was home to some 11,000 women, according to records.

Unlike the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland, the institutions in Scotland were funded by voluntary subscription with strong support from the Kirk.

Over the same period, the institution drew in just over £81,000 in subscriptions and donations, £71,143 in legacies and grants with an income of just over £71,000 made from the laundry.

Census records from 1881 list some of the women living there. They included Christina Anderson, 18, from Edinburgh, who worked as a washer; Isabella Blair, 19, a kitchen maid from Falkirk and Catherine Forbes, 23, form Stirling, who worked as a scrubber.

Women were discharged after completing their full laundry training but some did leave on their own accord.

It was an old newspaper article on the breakout that inspired Ms Talbot to write a novel, The Lost Children, set in the Glasgow asylum.

She said: “I wanted to give these forgotten women a voice. Many people are unaware that there ever was a Magdalene Institution in Glasgow. When I came across the article from 1958 I knew there was a story to tell.”