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Monday, 23 June 2014

Highgate's Lost Girls by Rowan Lennon & Sam Perrin

Underage prostitution was as much a concern in Victorian times as it is now. Despite the veneer of respectability associated with Victorian society, underneath was a festering world of prostitution and destitution, often supported by those who outwardly appeared to be upstanding pillars of society.  Highgate, long associated with poets, artists and literary endeavour, was not immune from the realities of this underworld.

On the site of Hill Crest Estate, North Hill, once stood Park House, an early 19th Century mansion built by Mr Cooper on sixty acres of land.  Previously an asylum for the “mentally deficient”, Park House was leased to the London Diocesan Penitentiary in 1856 to house a penitentiary: not a prison but a reformatory for “fallen women”.  The majority of its inhabitants were under the age of twenty.

A council of the great and the good was established in 1856 by the Bishop of London, including the Marquis of Londonderry, to raise funds and the London Diocesan Penitentiary (also known as the Highgate penitentiary or House of Mercy) opened its doors.

To quote from their mission statement, “It has been recently stated in Parliament that there are 20,000 victims to prostitution in London.  It is established by hospital returns and confirmed by medical experience, that the average duration of the lives of these outcasts was from five to seven years; consequently at least 3,000 of them die every year.  Of the few reformatories in London two have been closed through want of support.

‘‘Further facts- It is found that numbers of these outcasts have been the victims of an organised trade, having been decoyed to London under the promise of honourable service.  Many of them have been ensnared under 15 years of age.  Many have returned home in their first remorse but have been thrown back again on their sinful life by harsh or injudicious treatment.  In the end they perish, chiefly from consumption and not infrequently from actual want and cold during the winter months.’’

The age of consent in the 19th Century was 12 until 1885 when it increased to 16, as a direct result of a campaign by W.T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.  All the blame fell on the girls for their condition, and they were faced the prospect of spiritual damnation should they not repent of their “sin”.

In the first census of the Penitentiary in 1861, the youngest girl listed is Emma Jones, aged just ten.  The enumerator has angrily scrawled across the census, “Penitents have all been prostitutes, for that reason their professions are not mentioned on schedule”.  Always these girls were being judged, but never their abusers.

So what happened to girls who were accepted into the Penitentiary?  They had to be referred by a clergyman or from other refuges.  The warden, Reverend John Olivier, apparently a strict but kindly man, was responsible for enabling the purchase of Park House instead of just leasing it, a shrewd financial move. The girls stayed for two years and in that time learned skills such as cleaning, sewing, and cooking, and literacy where needed, as well as receiving a regular diet of religious instruction.

The LDP's aim was the salvation of these women’s souls through spiritual guidance and vocational training, as opposed to punishment or reproach, and the first Annual Report noted that the “Council was unwilling to press any kind of labour as a means of profit, less an excess of work should give the inmates an aversion to the discipline of the house.”

The second Annual Report stated the work regime “was not produced from any particular theory, but wrought out by the dangers and difficulties of the work itself… There can be no system of coercion such as the law permits for every other class of public offenders.  The will of the inmates is only to be restrained by the quiet influence and teaching of the Warden and the sisters in charge, and when the waywardness of such inmates, their violent outbreaks of temper and general want of self-control are considered, it is a matter of wonder that a few inexperienced ladies could have succeeded in retaining in their first year... 43 out of 49."

If viewed with a 21st Century perspective, the regimen at the Highgate Penitentiary was harsh and restrictive, with the girls wearing uniforms and working in silence. However it wasn't as severe (by Victorian standards) when compared to institutions such as workhouses or prisons - the dropout rate at Park House was surprisingly low.  After their two-year reformation period girls were returned to their parents or went into service, while others went on to marry and lead perfectly respectable lives, such as Sarah Greatorex who married a policeman.  Others opted to become lay sisters at the Penitentiary, helping other girls.  Of course, the rigidity and discipline of the penitentiary wasn't for everyone and some couldn't help but revert back to their dubious pasts.

And then there were those for whom the prospect of life without the routine of the Penitentiary was unbearable: in October 1883, Ellen Keating, aged 17, appeared in court for attempting to commit suicide by using a length of ribbon to choke herself to death. Her reason? She believed she was about to be expelled from the Penitentiary for committing a minor misdemeanour and preferred to face death than be sent away (Ellen was readily received back by the Lady Superior on condition she didn't attempt such a thing again).

In 1866, it cost the LDP an annual average of £27 per head to keep each Highgate penitent fed, clothed and housed and public appeals from Rev. Oliver and the Church Penitentiary Association for donations were frequent.  By 1877 the Highgate penitentiary accommodated 60 inmates and by this point the demand for such institutions throughout the country had grown exponentially. In a letter to The Standard (19/05/1896) the Association wrote that in 1856, Houses of Mercy in England totalled only nine. By 1896 that number had increased to 91, with over 45,000 women and girls passing through the collective doors in that 40-period. The Highgate penitentiary in particular received high praise from the Charity Commissioners for the extremely encouraging results it achieved, and was commended by the Pall Mall Gazette for "the excellent domestic training given to the women" that provided a calibre of housemaids and servants for which demand exceeded the supply.

Christina Rossetti, the poet and an Anglican lay sister, was deeply involved in the Highgate penitentiary for twelve years.  Her contact with these women influenced her later poems about love and betrayal, and she regularly tried to secure employment for some of the reformed girls with her friends, as well as arranging regular fundraising events. Christina didn't discuss her work with the “fallen women” outside the penitentiary openly but worked tirelessly to ensure that they had a chance of a better life when they left.

As a result of the Whitechapel murders of prostitutes in 1888, the public’s attention was brought to the dangers faced by “unfortunates” plying their trade in the East End.  Their plight was raised by Rev. C.T. Ackland, the vicar of St Anne’s in Highgate, in his letter to The Times in October 1888 in an effort to appeal for funds to support the Highgate penitentiary.  

What happened to Emma Jones, the ten-year old girl listed on the 1861 census?  She died aged 12 and was the first inhabitant of a communal grave in Highgate Cemetery purchased by the London Diocesan Penitentiary in 1862 at a cost of £5. 5 shillings.  No marker is visible and ten girls lie in the grave – all that’s visible is a narrow space between two adjacent plots, in the middle of which a tree grows. These women and girls were not important enough to be named and shame followed them, even after death.  The occupants of the grave are no longer anonymous:

Emma Jones, died 1862 aged 12
Anna Williams, died 1869 aged 15
Caroline Harriet Rhodes, died 1874 aged 19
Emily Potter, died 1878 aged 21
Harriet Smith, died 1880 aged 17
Frances Iliffe, died 1881 aged 14
Maude Clabby, died 1882 aged 18
Rosetta Edwards, died 1900 aged 20
Ada Rebecca Ingram, died 1907 aged 40
Agnes Ellis, died 1909 aged 29

The Rev John Olivier lies in his family vault in Highgate West, as does Christina in her family plot.  Three of the penitentiary's Sisters are interred in the cemetery.  Yet the lost girls of the Highgate penitentiary lie unmarked and receive no recognition.

Copyright (C) Rowan Lennon & Sam Perrin June 2014


  1. The story of the Lost Girls is very moving - I really appreciate your assiduous research.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Despite these women and girls demonstrating such an important aspect of women's social history in the 19th century, they are not included in the tour guide training offered by Highgate Cemetery's management and remain, as they were in life, brushed under the carpet in favour of The Great and The Good.

  3. It came as quite a surprise recently to find that my great grandmother's name appears on the 1881 census (Fanny Shelford). So very much appreciated your article. I suspect that, as illegitimate and living with her grandmother in Staffordshire she was persuaded to come down to London for a better life. She probably had no idea what lay ahead. But she was indeed taught a trade as a seamstress and went on to marry and bring up 3 boys. Whether they knew of this past we may never know, although her husband probably did. I understand that records about the Penitents weren't kept until the 1890's so how she got there we will probably never know. Thanks for such enlightening research.