We are very grateful to Anna Forrest whose invaluable research and documentation of the Lock Hospital’s history made the writing of this article possible.
Walking in the Rottenrow area in central Glasgow, you can easily get a sense of the history of this city, with its red sandstone buildings and the remains of what was the old maternity hospital. However, there is a piece of history in here that has remained hidden and almost completely forgotten if it wasn’t for a group of researchers who have unearthed this chapter in Scottish history: the Lock Hospital and the women who were ‘treated’ there.
In 19th century Glasgow, hundreds of women were incarcerated in the Lock Hospital to ‘prevent’ the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Yet, rather than being looked after, the women endured inhumane treatment and a complete exclusion from society. In this blog we trace back some of this history and remember the lives of the women that found themselves locked at the Lock.
The creation of Lock Hospital
In the 1800s, there was great concern for the health of men, particularly soldiers and sailors. It was also a time when cases of sexually transmitted infections were growing in cities like Glasgow, and so did concerns about those infections reaching men. Thus, the authorities decided to act.
As the Victorians held the widespread belief that women were to blame for the transmission of STIs - especially working class women and those living in a context of poverty and scarcity -, it was decided that women should be locked away for their own and for men’s protection.
In 1805, Glasgow opened its own Lock Hospital for “Unfortunate Females with Venereal Disease” with 11 beds to ‘treat’ women and girls with infections such as syphilis and gonorrhoea. The Lock only took women - men infected were treated at royal hospitals or in separate purpose-built clinics.
The Lock was located in what was considered Glasgow’s ‘red light’ district and was designed to look just like the neighbouring buildings, with nothing to indicate it was a hospital. This reflected the idea that the women needed to be hidden away.
In fact Anna Forrest, historian and researcher of the Lock, was able to find only a single photograph of the building taken before its demolition in the 1950s. The place (as seen below), looks inconspicuous, like any other tenement building, which contributed to its hidden nature and that of the women kept within its walls.
From the moment the Lock opened its doors, it became part of what came to be known as the ‘Glasgow System.’
The ‘Glasgow System’
Conceived in response to the city’s growing concern about prostitution, STDs and the moral health of society in the late 19th Century, the Glasgow System aimed to morally reform women considered ‘common prostitutes.’ The system was made possible through the collusion between local authorities, the police, the churches and the medical profession.
The system led to thousands of women being incarcerated mainly in the Lock Hospital and the Glasgow Magdalene Institution, but also in Lochburn House, and Duke Street prison. While the Magdalene’s purpose was to reform ‘morally fallen’ women, the Lock had a curative function.
Those imprisoned were generally termed ‘prostitutes,’ an umbrella term which at the time encompassed working class women and girls, who could be single mothers, socialists, mill girls, factory girls, actresses, as well as those who sold sex for money. Thousands of women were placed in these institutions, many were never released.
Eventually, the ‘Glasgow System’ was adopted in Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Liverpool and Manchester.
Life in the Lock Hospital
Women could end up at the Lock in a number of ways. Although in all cases they were ‘encouraged’ in different ways to enter the hospital of their own accord.
With the powers granted by the ‘Glasgow System,’ working class and unemployed women were targeted by police raids. If arrested, they would be sent to jail where the police surgeon would examine them for STIs. If found to be infected, they were sent to the Lock for treatment. Those who weren’t infected were given the option to seek reform in the Magdalene or face criminal charges. Women at the Magdalene would also be regularly examined and sent to the Lock for treatment if infected, but expected to return to the institution upon recovery.
The conditions in the hospital were very poor and some ‘cures’ could kill the women more quickly than the disease itself. For example, mercury baths were used extensively as were forced vaginal examinations. Those who were not too ill, were forced to do work such as cleaning floors, laundry and sewing their own uniforms. Many women died whilst patients and others never left after admission.
Although the Lock was as such a place women were free to leave, in reality they were discouraged from doing so through different means. For instance, a report from 1882 highlights the conditions of entry for women and says: “you are not to go out of the hospital, on any pretence whatever, until you are regularly discharged; and if, after this caution, you go out, you will not be suffered to return into the house.”
Other tactics included shaving women’s heads so they would feel too ashamed to leave. And finally, one of the rules was that the Lock would not allow readmissions. Thus, women in recovery were told the disease was still active or could return, or that they might be reinfected once out, which discouraged women from leaving.
Remembering the women subjected to the ‘Glasgow System’
Researchers and historians such as Anna Forrest and Linda Mahood have led the work to document and shed some light on the Lock Hospital, Lochburn House, the Magdalene Institution and the women who were incarcerated as part of the ‘Glasgow System.’
The Women’s Support Project have been working alongside these and other academics and researchers to find ways to keep the memory of the women alive and ensure Glasgow comes to terms with this history. Planning and discussions are currently taking place to make this a reality, and we hope to have some updates in the coming year.
If you want to find out more about the women subjected to the ‘Glasgow System,’ listen to Anne Forrest’s talk hosted by the Glasgow City Heritage trust, and visit the Lochburn Women blog.
The Women’s Support Project has linked with Public Health Scotland for an exciting new pilot focusing on improving how sexual health service respond to women involved in selling or exchanging sex.
We know that sexual health and wellbeing is a key issue for women who sell sex and that staff in clinics and services can be pivotal in ensuring that women have their needs met.
In recent years, the nature and context of selling sex have changed, with increasing ease of entry especially via online platforms. It is hard to truly ascertain the numbers of women involved, but rough estimates published in 2016 suggest there are over 72,800 people working in the ‘sex industry’ in the UK, and approximately 80% of them are women. There is little published research in the UK that explores the sexual health needs of the full spectrum of those in the ‘sex industry.’ Within England, sexual health surveillance data shows that in 2019 only 6,531 people attending sexual health services identified as a sex worker.
Women can find it challenging to disclose that they are selling sex for a number of reasons, as highlighted in recent research commissioned by the Scottish Government. These can include concerns around confidentiality, feeling judged or stigmatised, losing control of their information, and the impacts of immigration, police and social work involvement.
The underreporting of involvement in selling sex means there is limited understanding of the complexities of women's health and wellbeing needs. It also means there are clear opportunities to develop and improve the health responses provided to women.
We want to better understand the current health service responses to women involved in the selling and exchanging of sex and find examples of good practice to learn from, build upon and share.
We undertook a short survey with sexual health staff in Grampian, Greater Glasgow, Lothian and Highlands helped to identify staff’s information and training needs, with initial results showing limited awareness of the Scottish policy position on prostitution and its implications for practice. There were also varying levels of discomfort in asking enquiry questions on selling sex and commercial sexual exploitation, as well as varying levels of confidence in supporting women.
Following the survey, the Women’s Support Project will support existing workforce development opportunities and test new approaches in four NHS Board areas. This includes developing and delivering new training using the findings from the scoping and surveys, along with the lived experiences of women as reported in the Scottish Government’s commissioned research. The training will be delivered both online and in person throughout 2023 and learnings will be shared early in 2024.
In this blog, our colleague Claire writes her impressions of a new theatre play which deals with topics of gender-based violence and justice.
Last autumn, I took a trip to the cinema to watch the much-anticipated theatre play Prima Facie. Written by Suzie Miller and starring Jodie Comer (known for her main roles in Killing Eve and Help), the story begins with a successful female lawyer who is tasked with defending clients that could be guilty of their crimes, including sexual assault and rape.
With the help of a formidable solo performance by Comer, the play delves into gender inequality in the workplace, survivor’s experiences of rape and the criminal justice system. However, where Prima Facie shines is in its sensitive exploration of the complexities of sexual violence. Particularly that this form of abuse most typically happens at the hands of someone known to the survivor – usually a current or ex-partner. Most importantly, it gives a vivid and personal account of what the statistics only tell us in numbers. For instance, that between 2021 and 2022 there were 2,498 instances of rape reported to Police Scotland, but only 6% of those charges were brought against the perpetrator.
The performance, script, stage design and music are flawless, they tell a story that is not only heart-breaking but unfortunately a common scenario for 1 in 4 women in the world. Many survivors don’t report sexual violence and it is no wonder – for many, the cost can be too high when the possibility of justice comes hand-in-hand with societal scrutiny and judgment, intrusive interrogation, and a conviction rate so low that it can feel hopeless for many survivors.
Everyone should see this play; everyone should understand that the system we have now is not fit for purpose. It is not bringing justice to women, and it is not deterring men from abusing. However, I see hope in this play, in spreading awareness through art, activism and political discussion. It leaves us with a message – that by standing together against injustice and in solidarity with survivors we can collectively work towards creating a safer and more equal society for everyone.