Ancestry UK

The Magdalen Hospital, London

The Magdalen Hospital for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes was established in 1758 following a proposal by Robert Dingley that something should be done to reclaim young women who, beacuse of a moral lapse, had been driven into prostitution, but who were penitent and prepared to enter upon a new way of life.

Originally known as the Magdalen House, its first premises were in Featherstone Street, not far fron the present-day Old Street Station. The following year it moved to 21 Prescot Street, Whitechapel — then a very insalubrious location with many brothels and drinking houses. The establishment received girls and women, below the age of 30, who had entered into prostitution but wished to reform — especially those who had not long 'fallen'. The inmates of the institution were occupied in laundry work and needlework and given religious instruction.

The institution eventually raised sufficient funds to erect purpose-built premises on Great Surrey Street (now Blackfriars Road), St George's Fields, Southwark, where it moved in 1772 and changed its name to the Magdalen Hospital. Despite its name, however, the institution was never one whose purpose was to provide medical treatment.

The Southwark site is shown on the 1830 map below.

The Magdalen Hospital site, Southwark, c.1830.

The Magdalen Hospital, Southwark, early 1800s. © Peter Higginbotham

The Hospital was noted for its octagonal chapel. Some services could be attended by the public, although the inmates' choir was kept out of sight behind a screen. The chapel became a fashionable place of worship and the money raised in collections provided useful funds for the Hospital.

By the 1860s, the area had become very built-up and unhealthy. The increasing costs of maintaining the building and a decline in the Hospital's income led to a decision to move the institution. In 1869, the site was sold to the Peabody Trustees for a construction of a the Peabody Square housing development and the Hospital moved to new premises at Drewstead Road, Streatham.

The buildings were enlarged in 1889, with further rebuilding taking place in 1913, which included a large laundry from which much of the institution's income came. As at Southwark, a large chapel was provided.

The Magdalen Hospital site, Streatham, c.1916.

The Magdalen Hospital, Streatham, 1880s.

The Magdalen Hospital, Streatham, c.1915. © Peter Higginbotham

The Magdalen Hospital Chapel, Streatham, c.1915. © Peter Higginbotham

The Hospital's remit in 1890 was stated as 'the reformation of fallen women, especially such as are not yet deeply degraded'. It was only in 1938 that the phrase 'for the Reception of Penitent Prostitutes' was dropped from its official name.

On 3rd August, 1934, the establishment was formally certified as the Magdalen Hospital Approved School for Senior Girls, aged between their 15th and 17th birthdays at their date of admission. The premises could accommodate up to 75 girls, with a maximum of 30 having being committed by the courts. In January, 1835, the latter figure was raised to 40 girls, and again the following month to 60.

Scenes from Shakespeare at Magdalen Hospital, c.1937. © Peter Higginbotham

During the Second World War, the inmates were evacuated to the Chaworth St James School in Ottershaw, Surrey.

Returning after the war to Streatham, the School became a Classifying School, in which new entrants to the Approved School system were assessed as to their character and physical and mental abilities and passed on to a school suited to their needs.

On October 1st, 1965, it was announced that the School's managers intended to resign its Certificate of Approval. The School closed the following year and the site was sold to Lambeth Council. The Magdalen Hospital Trust, which received the proceeds, was dissolved in 1973.

The Drewstead Road site is now covered with modern housing although the original entrance lodge still stands, now used as offices.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • Lambeth Archives, Minet Library, 52 Knatchbull Road, London SE5 9QY. Holdings include Baptisms in Hospital Chapel (1883-1951); Visiting Committee reports (1885-1965); Committee minute books (1938-1960).
  • The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU. Holdings include Daily logbooks (1953-64); Inspection reports.