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Institutions, Mental Health and Morality

Magdalene-Laundries-2

I grew up on Hayling, a small Island off the coast of Hampshire, between the mainland cities of Portsmouth and Chichester. We moved there in 1968. It was a very rural island with several dairy and fruit farms as well as holiday camp physical and mental disabilities– differently abled children.  Suntrap was one on the southern coast, as was the Royal Hotel and Gorseway House, St. Catharine’s, Sandy Point and St Mary’s Meadow. Each of the institutions had huge, walled gardens so that the children were rarely seen by residents or visitors to the island unless they had business with the institutions. Over the course of the sixties and seventies, the institutions closed or changed clientele. For example, Sandy Point became a hospital for mentally handicapped children as well as a respite holiday center for hundreds of handicapped children from southern England. Gorseway House is now a nursing care center for the elderly.

hayling map

St. Mary’s Meadow was one of the last to close and happened to be within walking distance of my home.  One day in the late 1970s I answered an advertisement and went to St. Mary’s Meadow for an interview. For some reason I had no idea that St. Mary’s was a Roman Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children. The Mother Superior graciously explained what it was that the job entailed. I was to take the “girls” shopping on Saturday afternoons so that they could buy whatever they needed—soap, shampoo, candy etc. Yes, I thought I could do this and so I took the job.

Mother Superior then introduced me to the “girls”—Mary, Gladys, Joan, Norma, Anne and Martha. Each girl looked to me to be approximately forty-five years or older, in varying degrees of mental ability and extremely excited about the idea of going shopping with me. For the next year, I spent most Saturdays taking the last residents of St. Mary’s Meadow to get their haircut, to buy personal items at the Pharmacy or Supermarket, and for coffee or afternoon tea at Heidi’s Swiss Bakery. Their favorite “outing” was to my house to chat with my mother and brother and have tea and a cookie with them. It was the best (and easiest) job I ever had as a teenager.

All of the “girls” had spent their entire life at St. Mary’s Meadow. Most were the daughters of unmarried mothers or the product of a botched illegal abortion. Their lives revolved around the schedule of the nuns at St. Mary’s Meadow. They helped with the cleaning, the cooking and the laundry in exchange for the attention of the nuns. Most had no family, or rather had no family that claimed them as members. As a result, the women of St. Mary’s Meadow became family to each other, often bickering like siblings or holding each other’s hands to cross the road.

I have no idea if these individuals were abused in any way. At the time, I would never have doubted the Roman Catholic Church and its role in the care of the “unloved” and the “unwanted.” Yet I recently assigned the book, Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries for a course in Modern British history. The book retold the story of the ways that women and girls, perceived to be “wayward” or a “moral” threat to the state, were institutionalized in workhouses called “Magdalen Laundries” because Mary Magdalen, the friend of Jesus, has been remembered in Church history as a “prostitute.” (you can read more about it here.) The women, often unmarried mothers or simply the female offspring of an illicit union, were basically imprisoned and forced to “do laundry” in order to be reminded of their immorality and their “uncleanliness.” The laundries began in the eighteenth century and were operated by the Roman Catholic Church until the last laundry closed in 1996. Since that time, evidence of sexual, psychological and physical abuse have come to light, largely from the oral histories of some of the last occupants of these “Magdalen” laundries as well as the discovery of 155 bodies in unmarked graves on the grounds of a former institution.

Lost in the Wash

Ireland’s Magdalen Laundries has raised questions about the time I spent at St. Mary’s Meadow and the institutions on Hayling overall. Why did they all have such high walls? Why did we never see the institutionalized? Were they abandoned by their families or were they disowned because of their origins or disabilities?

What happened behind the walls?

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