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Moral panic around rising prostitution rates and female ‘immorality’ in England in the early nineteenth century saw the establishment of residential moral reform institutions for ‘fallen’ women. Religiously-minded middle-class men and women took local voluntary action, raised funds and initiated the building of these institutions, known as refuges, homes, penitentiaries, or magdalen asylums. Their purpose was to redirect  working class women who had been sex workers, or who were sexually experienced but unmarried, back onto the ‘right path’. After a programme of laundry and sewing work of around two years, women were placed in respectable domestic service. Religious instruction and observance played an important part in the process of ‘remoralisation’. Drawing on the material worlds of two rural Anglican sisterhood penitentiaries and two urban homes, this paper examines religious spaces, artefacts, texts and their meaning in the institutional context. It will show that inmates’ responses to religion were not always as expected and more complicated than has previously been acknowledged.

Dr Susan Woodall is Staff Tutor in History at The Open University. She has recently published Material Setting and Reform Experience in English Institutions for Fallen Women, 1838-1910. Genders and Sexualities in History. Palgrave Macmillan, 2023. 

All welcome – This event is free, but booking is required.