The generous and liberal treatment the girls at Urania Cottage were to receive must have seemed strange to contemporaries used, as they were, to a rigid and judgemental response to sin. The acquisition of a piano for the Home was much discussed amongst literary circles and Dickens mischievously spread the rumour that they were to have one for each girl. But others were critical of the more typical asylum treatment offered to young women. The excellent Felicia Skene in her 1865 booklet 'Penitentiaries and Reformatories' is obviously incensed by the misguided attempts of charitable bodies to reform 'social evil' (Felicia Skene, p.3). Whilst she condones the, 'solid good' of their intentions she is critical of, 'the inevitable humbug and unreality' (Felicia Skene, p.4) which often accompanied them.
Skene doesn't comment specifically on Urania Cottage and the institutions she describes are very different from that reformatory. It is clear that she would have approved of Dickens' flower gardens and colourful dresses. She would also have approved of Captain Machonochie's mark scheme, commenting that the majority of reformatories, 'whose laws, of the most narrow and rigid description, are framed in an iron mould. . . by discipline alone' (Felicia Skene p.4).
In contrast to Dickens and Angela Burdett-Coutts though, Skene, perhaps made more anxious by the recent Contagious Diseases Act, is determined that reformatories should be able to deal with a greater number of women. She criticises the design of buildings allowing greater space for the 'ladies in charge' than the 'penitents'. She was particularly critical of the practice of having a punishment room — this use of space resulted in only, 'eight, twelve, fifteen, twenty or thirty penitents only.' The 1861 Census lists Urania Cottage as having only ten inmates, Miss Skene would have no doubt seen this as a waste of space, but Miss Coutts wished to make their cottage a home and not a huge institution.
In general though, Miss Skene's criticisms of the general practice and routine common in homes for the fallen lead us to believe that she would have approved of Urania Cottage. The advent of the Contagious Diseases Act limited inmates to those who have, 'a medical certificate of perfect health.' Other conditions prohibited entry still further, 'None are to be received who will not promise to stay two years. . . None are to be received a second time who have once left' (Felicia Skene, p.8). Dickens anticipated the restlessness of the young women and even before Urania Cottage opened had written to Miss Coutts, '. . . I would not make one, or two, or three, or four, or six departures from the Establishment a binding reason against the re-admission of that person.' (Letters, p.555)
Like Dickens, Miss Skene advocates a useful, cheerful education for these girls, 'The same dreary round of irksome duties and needless restraints drives them through day and night. . . to descend to a lower depth of misery in the solitude' (Felicia Skene, p.8). She gives an example timetable for penitents which includes rising at 5am, at least six 'opportunities' for prayer, private prayer and Bible-class and is interspersed with silent 'industrial world'. The most usual form of work was a laundry attached to the reformatory, this could be a source of income and a possible future career for the women. Once again we are struck by Miss Coutts and Dickens foresight, their girls were taught the household skills needed for a small household, hopefully one day their own, they mended clothes, tended the gardens and made bread. Christian worship was a twice daily occurrence but was interspersed with more variety. Unlike Miss Skene's young women they were read to after lunch from 'a carefully chosen, but interesting book' (Dickens Connection, p.5). They were prepared for a new life, hopefully in the colonies, where they might become, 'the wives of good and faithful men' (Dickens Connection, p.5). This difference in the aspirations of the administrators for their charges is important. The reformatories Miss Skene describes primarily to punish the non-conformist behaviour of the penitents. Urania Cottage sought to encourage the young women through the possible prize of a full return to society, albeit in the Colonies. The more liberal approach advocated by Dickens and Miss Coutts suggests that they were ambitious for the success of their inmates and also that they held a different approach to the apportioning of blame for the causes of prostitution too. Dickens famously remarked to a friend that, 'if his son were particularly chaste, he should be alarmed on his account, as if he could not be alarmed on his account, as if he could not be in good health' (Ackroyd, p.537) This suggests that Dickens, like a substantial number of his contemporaries saw prostitution as a (somewhat inevitable) result of the natural urges of men.
Felicia Skene is simply critical of a society which, 'sought to hide its blackest curse under a veil of mock prudery, while it let thousands of wretched women drift year after year into the abyss. . . because their sin was unfit to be named in the polite society that scrupled not to receive with open arms the very men for whom they sinned' (p.5).
Josephine Butler in her publication, 'Some Thoughts on the Present Aspect of the Crusade Against the State Regulation of Vice' (1874) echoes this thought, 'Men have imposed on women a stricter rule in morality than they have imposed on themselves' (Josephine Butler, p.15). This hypocrisy in the punishment and treatment of fallen women was thrown into sharper focus after the introduction of the Lock Asylums in 1864 which regulated the treatment of prostitutes and allowed for their arrest and inspection. At first the focus of the new regulations were 'to prevent the spreading of certain Contagious Diseases,' and concentrated on naval areas. Those women found to be infected, could be detained in a Lock Hospital. Once cured, they were offered a place in a Lock Asylum, an offer many women chose to decline. Whilst we must commend the intentions of the Government to reform through the use of asylums or reformatories it seems that many of these were not popular with the women themselves. Urania Cottage was created before the Contagious Diseases Act, perhaps in an earlier and more sympathetic age and indeed it does seem that the repentant prostitute would have found more practical help in Urania Cottage than in many other similar asylums.
William Acton, writing about the Lock Asylums in 1870 echoes Miss Skene's findings. 'It cannot, however, be said that these poor patients show any great disposition to enter the Asylum. . . In the year 1867, out of 877 patients, (detained in the Lock Hospital and therefore offered a place in the asylum) 76 only entered the asylum, 8.09%' (Acton, p.2) Acton criticises the monotony of the girls' work (laundering) and the matrons' objections to sewing machines, 'having so many human machines to do their work...' Like Skene, Acton asks if this type of institution is the correct response to the problem or if it would prepare the girls for, 'the temptations outside' (Acton p.3). He questions the idea that those responsible for the institutions knew best, 'I venture to entertain the opinion that many of the philanthropic persons who established these institutions years ago, did so without having previously studied the natural history, the habits, the wants, the tendencies and the careers of these women' (Acton, p.3) Acton's presentation of the causes of prostitution is more akin to the poverty of Nancy than the dramatic fall of Little Em'ly. He points out that the majority of prostitutes followed the, 'calling' for an average of four years and that society should accept that opportunities must be made to alleviate the sufferings of those wishing to find, 'some other mode of life.' He wishes, like Miss Coutts and Dickens, to help these women to 'join society again.'
Acton and Skene both suggest that a return to society through the help of a home or asylum would not be easy. Skene talks of the misery of a runaway, returning repentant to find herself punished for absconding. Acton suggests that the Lock Asylums are a last resort for those too old or diseased to earn a living. The Lock Asylums and the harsher reform homes, predicated as they were on the belief that their prospective inmates shared a morally misguided past and a future full of shame and repentance, cannot have been an attractive prospect to these young women.
Created 27 May 2003
Last modified 20 September 2015