This advertisement for the London Diocesan Penitentiary, also known as the St Mary Magdalene ‘house’, dates from April 1860. Based in Highgate, North London, the Penitentiary provided refuge for ‘fallen women’ – the respectable term applied to prostitutes or women who had had sex out of wedlock. The charity gave shelter and work to these women, seeking to rehabilitate them and steer them on to a more socially acceptable path.
Written by the charity’s treasurer with a view to attract donations, the advertisement provides a short history of the refuge and its mission. The penitentiary was one among around 50 in mid-19th century London.
Prostitution in the 19th-century
During the 19th-century prostitution developed into a major public concern and was commonly referred to as ‘the social evil’. Refuges and penitentiaries, which actively sought out women working as prostitutes, offered a safe environment to help women to leave the profession. Many of these institutions were exclusively religious, however, underpinned by a belief that repentance before God deserves human forgiveness.
The advertisement’s choice of language and tone is revealing of 19th-century attitudes towards the ‘fallen woman’. Women admitted to the establishment are referred to as ‘patients’; ‘penitentiary’ was a term also associated with prisons.
Christina Rossetti’s link to St Mary Magdalene house
Christina Rossetti volunteered at St Mary Magdalene house from 1859 to 1870, where she was known as ‘Sister Christina’. In the mid-19th century it became socially acceptable for middle-upper class Christian women to work at refuges. The advertisement reflects this trend, referring to the charity’s reliance on ‘self-devoted women to co-operate in the work’. When on duty, Rossetti is believed to have ‘lived in’ at the ‘house’ for up to a fortnight at a time.
Poems written by Rossetti before 1859, such as ‘Maude Clare’, indicate her prior interest in the ‘fallen woman’. Her later poetry, including ‘Cousin Kate’ and ‘Goblin Market’, which engage with themes of sisterhood and prohibited love, reveals the enduring influence of her firsthand experiences at Highgate.