Theresa Talbot’s debut novel ‘Penance’
Inspired by the girls of Glasgow’s Magdalene Institution in Maryhill
Theresa talks about her book:
In 1958 Glasgow’s Magdalene Institution in Maryhill was closed-down after the inmates staged a 3 day ‘riot’. The girls of Lochburn House claimed they were beaten, doused in freezing water and verbally and emotionally abused. The riot consisted of a series of break-outs where the girls, in a desperate bid for freedom, climbed a ladder and scaled a wall.
They were all aged between 15 and 19 years of age and none had been convicted of a criminal offence. Despite this police all over the city hunted for them and newspaper reports called on the public to be vigilant and look out for the girls, distinctive in their blue dress and white aprons. Each time the girls were rounded up they staged another breakout, some escaping down the fire escape; others staged a roof-top protest. They vowed to keep escaping until their voices were heard. The ‘riot’ lasted for three days, the final breakout occurred during a visit by from the Scottish Home Department, who were investigating the series of events. There was an official inquiry into their claims of beatings, bullying and verbal abuse; to this day no no-one has been held accountable.
The Magdalene Laundries are associated with Ireland, but they were actually widespread throughout the mainland – and I was shocked to discover they were also part of Glasgow’s forgotten past.
Another aspect which astounded me was the fact that Glasgow’s Magdalene, like so many on mainland Britain was not run by the Catholic Church, but by local Parish Councils and local authority councils. It was funded by voluntary contributions and of course the money it generated as a working laundry.
I was researching the story when I came across some newspaper articles in the archives and was haunted by the pictures of the girls. The first thought I had was ‘what happened?’ – after all, the institute had existed in Glasgow in one form or another since 1812. Something must have sparked off a series of events whereby they just said ‘no more – enough is enough.’ What tortures had they endured?
I was also intrigued as to what happened to the girls afterwards – once Lochburn House closed. They were just kids with their whole lives ahead of them, so where did they go? Did they have family to care for them? Or more likely were they left to fend for themselves?
I’m a radio journalist and started jotting down notes for a possible programme feature but before long I was gripped and realised there was a bigger story to tell.
Penance by Theresa Talbot
Penance really is art imitating life – the main protagonist Oonagh O’Neill is a Glasgow based journalist researching the city’s Magdalene Institution when she comes across the same archived picture and thinks…’there’s a story here’. Her research uncovers more than the incarceration of innocent females and leads her on her own journey.
This is my take on what led to that break-out which closed the doors of the city’s notorious asylum for good. I wanted to tell their story. I wanted to use dramatic licence to give the women a voice. And often fiction can be a powerful tool in relaying a story of this magnitude.
I never intended Penance to be a crime novel, it just seemed to happen that way. To me the worst crimes of all are the ones which are carried out in the full view of the public – sanctioned by the establishment. Look at Jimmy Saville, look at paedophiles in position of authority, look at domestic abuse – I even hate using that term. Many perpetrators of crime will never be brought to justice, and their crimes are so pernicious they can seep into our psyche and become the social norm.
The narrative for my story demanded that the asylum be catholic-run with links to Galway, so Lockbridge House in Penance is actually an amalgamation of The Glasgow’s Magdalene – also known as Lochburn House and the city’s notorious Lock Hospital.
Glasgow’s Magdalene Institution was originally set up in response to the city’s growing concern about prostitution, sexually transmitted disease and the moral health of society as a whole. At the time the term prostitute included sex-workers, single mothers, socialists and girls who dressed immorally.’
Victorian Glasgow had a dual-system in operation to deal with the spread of this social problem. The Magdalene Laundry had very specific criteria for women who entered – they had to be free from venereal disease, newly ‘fallen’, not pregnant – which set it apart from its Irish counterpart – and ‘willing to submit to discipline’. Others were committed to the notorious Lock Hospital which was established in 1805 to house ‘dangerous’ females with sexually transmitted diseases. The city policed its own version of the Contagious Diseases Act. The Glasgow System as it became known, saw the unprecedented collusion between the local constabulary and the medical authorities. Women under suspicion could be forced to undergo an intimate examination by male police officers; if they showed signs of V.D they’d be incarcerated into The Lock Hospital without limit of time. Many were never released.
The most horrific aspect of this was that the Glasgow system was deemed so successful it was adopted by several cities across theU.K.
The Lock Hospital didn’t close its doors until 1950. There’s an actual transcript from a doctor claiming that a seven year old girl receiving treatment for syphilis had infected herself.
The records for The Lock Hospital are fairly scant too. Again it’s as though the city would prefer to deny any knowledge of its existence.
I researched the stories of many women for the book, not just those from the Magdalene, but archived interviews from other asylums and poor houses and prisons.
Penance is set in the year 2000 with flash-backs to 1958. I wanted to tell the story with a modern outlook and with the benefit of hind-sight. Also it allowed me to show how easily victims are forgotten.
These women were not afforded the luxury of a fair and just society. They committed no crime. They were never convicted of any wrong doing. So in essence they had no right to appeal. Penance tells the story of thousands of women who lived and died in shame because there was no-one to speak up for them. I’m acutely aware that there are many women still alive who endured the horrors of not only the Magdalenes, but also asylums, it was important that I tried to be sensitive and not make their pain salacious. We may not know their names – we may never see their faces but if we spare a thought for them each day they’ll never be forgotten.
Theresa Talbot, November, 2015.
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