Cecelia W’s story

Magdalene laundries are more usually associated with Ireland, but institutions for penitent women were found in many countries.

The more usual name for these institutions were reformatory schools or refuges for penitent women, and they were run by a collection of nuns with the aim to cleanse the souls of those accommodated within, and focus the mind on good work through useful industry.

The more usual view is that admittance was via loose behaviour – either bearing a child out of wedlock or engaging in prostitution – but young catholic women could also be placed there for other reasons, such as engaging in petty crimes.

It is unknown what Cecilia W did to end up in a convent reformatory, but there is a record from someone bearing her name in 1879 who was charged with two counts of fraud. This young woman admitted her guilt, and was released – but may have been placed in a reformatory by her parents to keep her on the straight and narrow.

She’d been born in Newport, South Wales, into a large catholic family of eleven children. Her father worked as a sawyer, while her mother ran a public house.

Whatever she did to end up as a penitent, by 1881 she was placed in a convent institution in Bristol, spending her time employed in laundry work and needlework.

She stayed there for at least the next twenty years. In 1891 the institution, which was run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd – who had other convents and reform schools elsewhere in the UK – had 67 penitent women on their books alongside 59 reformatory girls and 20 school children. By 1891 Cecilia’s needlework role appeared to have been dropped and she was merely working as a laundry maid. She was similarly employed in the same institution in 1901.

By 1911, however, she appears to have left the convent as she does not appear on the list of inmates – so perhaps her debt to society had been repaid in the eyes of the church. A woman bearing her name was living in a flat in Brighton, on the south coast of England, as the travelling companion to an American visitor of Irish descent. In the absence of an obvious death record it would be nice to think that, after many years hard laundry labour at the hands of the nuns, she had a nicer and more comfortable life in her later years. There is no further record of Cecelia, so she may have travelled back to America with her new-found companion.

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To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

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