Dating from March 1858, this newspaper article contains an address from the Bishop of London on the work of the London Diocesan Penitentiary. 

A charitable institution, also known as the St Mary Magdalene ‘house’, the Penitentiary provided refuge for ‘fallen women’ – the respectable term applied to prostitutes or women who had had sex out of wedlock. Based in Highgate, North London, the charity gave shelter and work for these women, seeking to rehabilitate and steer them on to a more socially acceptable path. 

Prostitution in the 19th century 

During the 19th century prostitution became a major public concern. It 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. 

‘Sister’ Christina Rossetti 

The poet Christina Rossetti volunteered at St Mary Magdalene House for over 10 ten years from early 1859. It is possible that this address, published a year before within a major London newspaper, alerted Rossetti to the charity and their need for volunteers. In the article the Bishop eagerly appeals for help so that the penitentiary can expand its work, the aim being to double the number of women who could be accommodated.