I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Saturday 11 June 2022

'The Lost Girls' of Highgate Cemetery West


Within the Highgate Cemetery complex lie the mortal remains of many thousands of people, all lovingly remembered in tender words or bold proclamations of their worldly achievements and deeds. However, for me the most heart rending plot was pointed out to our small party by the tour guide in the last few minutes of our 90 minute amble in the grounds. And a good job too that it was pointed out as there is in fact absolutely nothing to see. Immediately in front of a buttress of the perimeter wall there is a plot no marker, or even any indication that it is in fact a burial plot.

This unremarkable patch of sparse greenery sits on top of earth that conceals a terrible and highly poignant reminder of the inequalities that existed within Victorian Society. Surrounded as it is by thousands of tons of masonry and marble raised in the memory of eminent Victorians, this particular hole in the ground is more crowded than many of the grand mausoleums close by. No fewer than ten females, young girls and women. In life they would have been described as 'fallen women', those whose actions were considered to have contravened the strict moral codes of the age. Some would have been engaged in prostitution whilst others were condemned as such for having engaged in sexual relations outside of the sanctity of marriage.

In the mid 1880's (the heyday period for Highgate Cemetery), in London alone it was estimated that some 20,000 people were involved in prostitution, many were very young, barely teenagers. It was as late as 1885 when the age of consent was raised in the UK from 13 to 16 years of age. Prior to 1875, this had stood at just 12 years of age!

In an era before the existence of the Welfare State, the options open to the poor and destitute were very limited, with entry into the dreaded workhouse being an action of last resort. In the absence of a centralised welfare system it was down to religious organisations, temperance groups and wealthy philanthropists to offer relief for the plight of the poorest and least respected members of society.

One such organisation was the London Diocesan Penitentiary (LDP) which was formed in 1853 through a generous financial gift. It's raison d'etre was the 'reception and reformation of penitent fallen women'. In 1855, the LDP had obtained a lease on a property known as Park House in the Hillcrest area of Highgate. In 1861, the building and some surrounding land were acquired. The mansion was originally a family passed into the 'care' sector upon becoming an 'Asylum for Idiots' under a Reverend Andrew Reed. Under the LDC the institution also became known as the Highgate Penitentiary or the Highgate House of Correction.

Park House, Highgate

Upon referral from a cleric or another institution of refuge women could be accepted into the House of Mercy if they were penitent of their former sins and able to give 'practical proof of their desire to foresake the ways of evil'. If a woman successfully passed a two month period of probation, she would be accepted as an inmate of the Penitentiary for a period of two years. This period of habitation was divided into four periods of six months during which time she would be involved in the initiatory, the laundry, the domestic and the kitchen. During the six month initiatory period, inmates would be engaged in activities such as needlework and where.... 'habits of self-restraint - ever the great difficulty in cases of this kind - are inculcated' (the patricentric language applied here is not of my choosing but rather from a published funding drive by the LDP itself, which is reproduced below). In addition to the practical and heavy domestic work that the women were expected to engage in daily, the penitentiary staff, Anglican ministers, such as the Reverend John Oliver, and live in ladies of independent means, strove to improve the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the inmates. All of this training over the two year period was intended to give the women the means of living a life free of sin and vice after leaving the penitentiary. Some women married after passing through, whilst the aim for the majority was to attain a good position in service. In this respect, it would seem that, at least according to their own published appeals for charitable donations, Highgate Penitentiary, enjoyed considerable success, with the demand for Highgate trained domestics outdoing the supply.

All in all, it seems that the Highgate Penitentiary a good institution in an age when alternatives were few. The regime was said to be strict but fair. The stated fact that after leaving the house several of the girls contributed monies earned from their paltry wages from their domestic service positions do suggest that the institution was benign.

The plot in which the women are buried is unmarked and yet the names of all of those interred are known. This information was published I believe in the Ham & High (the newspaper serving the Hampstead and Highgate areas) in 2014.

The aforementioned Reverend John Oliver purchased the plot in 1862, when Emma Jones, the youngest inmate of the Penitentiary according to the property's 1861 census entry when her age was recorded as 10 years, died. She was just 12 years old. 

The plot contains the remains of the following women:

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

I find it sad that there is no headstone to mark the loss of these ten young lives, given the fact that their names were known. I am happy to be corrected here but this would represent a private grave plot as it had been purchased by Reverend Oliver in 1862. This is as opposed to a 'common grave' that is not allowed a marker. Maybe the rules were different because the cemetery was owned by a Cemetery Company rather than by the Church. Maybe it was decided that the money spent on a headstone to remember the departed would be better spent on the living inmates of Highgate Cemetery? 

Perhaps, the time has come to fund some manner of marker to these unfortunate women....

Below is an article published in the London Mirror of September 1873 that describes the purpose, structure and management of the Highgate Penitentiary as part of an appeal for charitable donation.

On the summit of Highgate Hill-one of the most pleasant and salubrious of London suburbs- is a substantial looking and commodious house, which might almost be dignified by the name of a "mansion," standing in its own grounds, some fifteen acres in extent, and known as ”Park House.” It was originally a gentleman's residence, but the turning point in its history may be said to date from the time when the Asylum for Idiots, founded by the late Rev. Andrew Reed,
D.D., and which has since acquired a Europeanreputation as "Earls wood," was in occupancy
there. For the last eighteen years, however, it has served the purposes of a penitentiary- that of St. Mary Magdalene for the Reception and Reformation of Fallen Women. It is a House of Mercy, whose gates are freely open, as far as means permit, to all who have committed that one false step which so often leads to a life of shame and sin, who are penitent, and who give a practical proof of their desire to forsake the ways of evil by voluntarily submitting themselves to the firm but kindly discipline imposed on all who enter its walls, and which, as experience shows, offers the surest means for their restoration to Society. Anyone who visits this institution, as we have done, will see that a great and Christian work is there quietly and unostentatiously carried on under the direction of the warden- the Rev. John Oliver, M.A.-for a
class who assuredly stand in need of sympathy and help-the "unfortunates" who were once virtuous and respectable girls and women, but who, yielding to the temptation, or caught in the snares so carefully spread for them, have prejudiced their claim to the world’s respect, and, in the depth of their misery, know not where to turn unless the band of Mercy points the way.

Before we enter further into our subject it may be well if we just glance at some of the leading principles of the constitution of the London Diocesan Penitentiary, as adopted by the council, and duly embodied in a deed. The bishop of the diocese is the visitor, and for each penitentiary that is established there are required the services of devoted women as "sisters," under the government of a lady principal selected out of their own number. In the Warden, who must be a member of the Church of England, licensed by the Bishop and subject to his approval, is vested the management of the whole teaching and discipline of the house. The Warden of St.
Mary Magdalene is, as we have already intimated, the Rev. John Oliver, M.A., who has filled that honourable and responsible office for the past seventeen years, and who, besides discharging the duties of chaplain, is one of the honorary clerical secretaries in conjunction
with the Rev. Henry R. Wadmore, M.A., and has a seat on the Council. The sisters - some
of whom are ladies by birth, while others; although not of the same rank of life, are well educated-consist of two classes, namely, "approved sisters" and "probationers." They not only receive no stipend but they contribute to the institution according to their means - the personal service of the poor sister being accepted in lien of payment for board, &C. In addition to these a few ladies are admitted as "associate sisters," whose duty it is to promote by every means in
their power the interests of the institution. In the several spheres of life and society to which
they belong.

Now, as to the rules which govern the admission of the "Penitents" and their mode of
life while in the Home. The Warden thoroughly examines into the case of every applicant., and
refuses none (when there is room in the institution), provided he be convinced that the woman is in earnest and has a sincere desire to be reformed. She is taken in for two months on probation, and if at the end of that time she wishes to remain, and her conduct has been satisfactory, she becomes an enrolled inmate, and is retained for two years. There are four classes in which the women, as a general rule, remain half a year-the initiatory, the laundry, the domestic, and the kitchen. In the initiatory class needlework is taught, and habits of self-restrain t- ever the great difficulty in cases of this kind - are inculcated. The laundry, in which the work is hard, and calculated to try the temper, effectually tests this preparatory training
which leads up to that fitness for domestic service completed by the remaining classes, and at which the institution aims - the industrial work being supplemented by instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion by the sisterhood. The inmates are also taught plain needlework and knitting, and some beautiful examples of both may be seen at the Home. No small test of the efficiency of the work is found in the fact, as stated by the Charity Commissioners in one of their Parliamentary returns, that "the demand at this penitentiary for servants is seven or eight times as great as the supply.” This may be in part accounted for by the great care exercised in the selection of the situations, so that the good done in the past may not be undone when they again mix with the world. The fullest inquiry is made as to the nature of the "place," and in no case must the wages be less than £8 a year. The woman, on entering
service, is furnished with a box of excellent clothing, worth from £7 to £ 8, upon the understanding that the mistress is to return the articles to the institution if the woman quits her service at the end of the year. Arrangements are, moreover, made with the employer that the wages shall be paid partly in clothing, so as to keep up the stock, and not wholly in money. Nor does the protection which the penitentiary of St. Mary Magdalene throws over its former inmates stop here. If a woman leaves a service in which she has conducted herself well refers to the warden she is sent to a servants' or private home until provided with another situation and, again, if any serious indisposition has prevented her from continuing in service, arrangements are made for her residence in the neighbourhood of Highgate until restored to health. It is not too much to say that the kindest supervision is exercised on these poor women long after they have left their old asylum, and it is to their credit that they are as a class most grateful for the benefits they received while there, not unfrequently sending their little contributions to the institution which afforded them a shelter in their hour of trouble. That they are a cheerful,
healthy, and happy family while at Park House anyone who sees them engaged at their various labours will admit. Indeed, the discipline, so essential in an establishment of this kind, would seem to be tempered down so as to meet the cravings of even the most crushed hearts. The service rendered to these poor penitents by the sisters is one of the purest love. These ladies -  and some of them are high-born - not only personally superintend the labours of these castaways, but are participators in their meals. And this brings us to the arrangements of the Home, which are of a most perfect character throughout. There are sitting-rooms for the warden and the lady principal, a chapel, a dining-hall, class-rooms, a common room for the sisters, and the dormitories so arranged that each penitent has a separate compartment to herself, and each dormitory is under the surveillance of a sister, whose sleeping chamber commands it. The basement is devoted to the kitchens, with all the necessary culinary apparatus  for so large a family, the store-rooms, &c., and out of doors, in what were originally stables, is an excellent laundry, into which all the modern improvements have been introduced. We should add that Park House, which was only rented at first is now the property of the institution, the Council having, on the expiration of the lease, been enabled to purchase the building and its extensive grounds at a total cost of about £ 17,000.

During the past year the number of inmates has been increased from forty to fifty, and it is
only the want of funds which prevents the Council from admitting ten more, and so making use of all the available accommodation in the house. In proportion to the increase of the numbers the necessity for a larger chapel is more and more felt. Tee chapel, already begun, and which is to replace the original little edifice, which was far too small for its congregation, is all that could be wished in point of arrangement and architecture, but a considerable sum of money is required to make it suitable for the wants of the institution. There is we should add a Refuge, called the "Westminster Refuge,'" which is under the direct care of the warden, who adds to his
customary labours by holding a service there on Sundays and visiting the house as occasion
requires, and which, useful in various ways even now, would, if pecunary arrangements could be made for its proper management and development, become a truly valuable appendage to the Penitentiary. The plain truth is, that more money is needed in all parts of the work. Fewer donations were recorded last year than usual, and the deaths of several old friends and
supporters diminidhed the subscription list. A kind anonymous friend, "G. S. T.," however, gave his third contribution of £1,000 to the institution, and the offertory collections devoted to it were greater in 1872 than in 1871. This is most gratifying, as showing that the clergy of the diocese are becoming more and more interested in the work, and more disposed to commend it to the bounty of their parishioners, who often liberally respond to such appeals, both at the time and by subsequent gifts. While on this point we may show that the penitents considering what their former lives have been, set a considerable value on Christian ordinances. Three were
baptised last year, twelve, after diligent preparation, were confirmed by the Bishop, and the average number of communicants was twenty. Then, as to the moral conduct of these women, after they have left the Penitentiary, we have it on the authority of the Charity Commissioners, after the strictest in investigation of all the cases discharged in four years, that 50 of the 64 per cent. discharged in credit were behaving well.

Looking at this work in all its aspects we know of none which we can more honestly commend to the sympathies and support of our Christian readers. And the more so that, carried on without outward display in a quiet suburb, it can be known but to the very few out of the great phalanx of givers to the works of mercy. We earnestly trust that the remarks which we have made may be the means of attracting some additional attention to this most Christian effort, and in this hope we would add that subscriptions and donations will be thankfully received by the Treasurer, Richard Twining, Esq., 215, Strand, W.C., or by the Rev. John Oliver, M.A., Warden of St. Mary Magdalene Penitentiary, Highgate.

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