In an article in Household Words in 1853, Dickens gives a rather more positive picture of the effectiveness of Urania Cottage. He euphemistically (or perhaps sensitively) calls the home a Home for Homeless Women, but it is obvious from his description of its inhabitants that they needed. 'reclamation'. He describes the fortunes of the women who had at this point, received a welcome at Urania Cottage. 'Of these fifty-six cases, seven went away by their own desire during their probation; ten were sent away for misconduct in the home; seven ran away; three emigrated and relapsed on the passage out; thirty (of whom seven are now married) on their arrival in Australia or elsewhere, entered into good service, acquired a good character and have done so well ever since as to establish a strong prepossession in favour of others sent out from the same quarter.' (Dickens Connection, p.39)
Whilst we may take a cynical view of Dickens' claims for the success of the home, we must recognise that the intention was to treat the girls with dignity. The girls entering Urania Cottage were often difficult and truculent. Dickens said of Sesina Bollard, that she was, 'the most deceitful little minx in this town — I never saw such a draggled piece of fringe upon the skirts of all that is bad. . . she would corrupt a Nunnery in a fortnight' (Dickens Connection, p.25) Her friend Isabella Gordon had concocted charges against the Matrons and was sent away with half-a-crown and directions to another charity. Another girl, Jemima Hiscock, 'forced open the door of the little beer cellar with knives and got dead drunk. . . 'Jemima used, 'the most horrible language..' and it was thought the beer must have been, 'laced with spirits from over the wall' (Dickens Connection, p.26) The dangers from 'over the wall' were thought to have been avoided by a police constable employed to watch the place. Unfortunately in 1857 Dickens wrote to Miss Burdett-Coutts of a deeply disturbing incident in which this police constable was, 'Yesterday morning between four and five. . . found in the parlour with Sarah Hyam.' (Lady Unknown, p.137)
These incidents of rebellion not only give an indication of the resilient nature of some of the inmates of Urania Cottage but also the very real difficulty faced by a society eager to reform women who may not choose to cohere. Although Urania Cottage offered a more sympathetic approach to reform than the asylums Skene and Acton describes, it does still advocate the need for repentance and reform. From the fallen women themselves we have very little evidence. Mayhew describes women living as wives, despite being unmarried, suggesting that marriage was not universally regarded as essential to working class women. The women he interviews are willing to give him an insight into their lives; but do not always agree with his moral views on their situation. A woman he describes as 'a soldier's woman' in describing her life repents the loss of social acceptance rather than having a sense of shame as a result of her behaviour. 'I always liked my freedom. I'm not comfortable exactly; it's a brutal sort of life this. It isn't the sin of it, though, that worries me. I don't dare to think of that much, but I do think how happy I might have been if I'd always lived at Chatham, and married as other women do, and had a nice home and children; that's what I want, and when I think of all that, I do cut up. It's enough to drive a woman wild to think that she's given up all chance of it. I feel I'm not respected either. If I have a row with any fellow he's always the first to taunt me' (Mayhew, p. 488).
Last modified May 27, 2003