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.