The Magdalene Laundry

By Alison Roberts (Printed in an edited form, May 2003)

Part 1

Last month saw the Phoenix Cinema’s screening of Peter Mullan’s award winning film, The Magdalene Sisters – a shocking portrayal of life in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Asylums.

The Magdalene Asylums were set up in the 19th century as refuges for so-called fallen women. Operated by orders of nuns, the asylums financed their operations by functioning as commercial laundries providing service to schools, prisons and other institutions.

The women had to labour in silence - totally unpaid - 52 weeks a year, symbolically washing away their sins. They were forced to bind their breasts, had their heads shaved and were regularly humiliated and beaten.

The last Magdalene institution, in Waterford, closed in 1996. But of course not all the asylums were in Ireland; there were plenty in Britain too - right up until the 1970s. Who would have guessed though that one of England’s last remaining Magdalene laundries was right here in East Finchley?

A sad corner of East Finchley’s history

Founded in about 1873, East Finchley’s Magdalene Asylum was run by a Catholic order – The Sisters of the Good Shepherd – and was situated on East End Road, opposite the St Marylebone Cemetery. It occupied the area bordered by the railway, Hamilton Road and what is now the North Circular Road.

Over the years, more than 30,000 women and girls were imprisoned in these penal establishments, some for decades, to scrub away the sin of being pregnant, unwanted or being perceived to be in “moral danger” (for example, because of being very pretty). Although the women were referred to as prostitutes, this term was used to encompass not only women who sold sex for money but also single mothers, socialists, mill girls and girls who dressed 'immorally'. The presumption that you were a sexual being was enough to condemn you. So the victims of abuse were guilty too and, by extension, those in danger of corruption by their fathers, brothers, cousins, or just men in general also had to be saved from sin.

 

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