Educating 'fallen women' in 19th century Scotland

In contrast to their infamous Irish counterparts, early Scottish Magdalene Asylums aimed to reform rather than punish, says PhD candidate Jowita Thor in a paper published by Studies in Church History.

Modern sepia-look photograph of Springwell House, previously Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum
Former Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum. Image adapted from a photograph by Kim Traynor (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Magdalene Asylums are often portrayed as harsh Christian institutions which provided a brutally strict work house for women who were regarded at the time as sexually promiscuous.

However, Jowita (Jo) has found evidence that many Scottish Magdalene Asylums saw themselves as places of education rather than penance. 

By examining the rules and reports of institutions such as the Philanthropic Society of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum, Greenock House of Refuge and others, Jo Thor presents new insights into how Christian philanthropists imagined and applied educational programmes for this group of women. 

The article also includes fascinating quotes from some former asylum residents, their employers and families.

Jo says:

"In Scotland, archival documents about the Magdalene Asylums are easily available but there has been little interest in researching them. This sometimes results either in a complete lack of knowledge about the Magdalene Asylums or the assumption that they were the same as the infamous Magdalene Laundries in Ireland - places of harsh punishment, abuse and forced incarceration.

"This image is not always accurate when considering the Scottish institutions, especially in their early stages."

In Scotland the asylums provided the two main areas of asylum education: religious teaching and instruction in skills necessary for becoming a servant or a factory worker. Those who could not read and write also received basic literacy lessons. 

"Magdalene Asylums in 19th-century Scotland offer a rich case study of a context in which education had a very narrow meaning and served a precisely defined purpose," Jo Thor continues.

"A Magdalene establishment was supposed to be, in the words of a former resident, 'a door opened to me by the Lord.' Humility and compliance were seen as essential virtues to be learnt, together with ‘habits of regularity and industry’ to foster independence."


Thor, J. 'Religious and Industrial Education in the Nineteenth-Century Magdalene Asylums in Scotland.' Studies in Church History Vol 55 (Churches and Education), June 2019 , pp. 347-362