Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a “fallen woman”.
Today we’d probably think of that term applying to a sex worker, or perhaps someone involved in drug dealing or organised crime.
To educated and aspirational social climbing Victorians however, with their drive to live godly and moral lives, the term had many different connotations. Fallen women were not necessarily prostitutes, but those women who had been “ruined” in some way – those who had lost their innocence (whether by accident or design) or virtue, or extreme poverty, and had therefore fallen from the grace of God. Fallen women were considered to have stepped outside the boundaries of what was socially and morally acceptable – therefore rape victims and those engaging in extra-marital affairs would also be included in that bracket. Just the women though. Not men who engaged in visiting prostitutes or extramarital sex. Which is a damning double standard. Theatre types – dancers and actresses, who would often perform in clothing that was more revealing and/or were known for entertaining patrons – were also included in the fallen women bracket.
Hephzibah was involved in the mid-Victorian drive to try to improve the lives of fallen women – or indeed eradicate this scourge from society. She was the youngest of several children – mostly girls – being brought up by non-conformist parents on the outskirts of London. Born in the late 1820s, her labourer father died when she was 17, and her widowed mother moved the family to West Ham. Hephzibah and her next oldest sister Betsy kept the family solvent by making dresses and hats, while their mother continued with her domestic duties. Neither of them ever married. With their mother, Hephzibah and Betsy helped to bring up their widowed brother’s children.
After their mother died at the tail end of the 1860s, Hephzibah moved in with their brother to keep house for him and continue to raise her nieces and nephews, while Betsy took her dressmaking business to her sister’s house.
During the 1870s the movement to improve society by rehabilitating women deemed fallen was gaining traction, and in London Hephzibah and Betsy – as virtuous unmarried women in their 40s with deep Christian faith – were well placed to become part of the process.
The midnight meeting movement, known for carrying out its work at night when those it was attempting to save, would hold events for fallen women in the less salubrious London districts. Street women would be invited to a lecture hall and then given food. Afterwards they would addressed by various gentlemen present in the hall in order to get them to repent and change their ways. One newspaper article at the time said that great emotion was shown on the part of some of the women, who had evidently been trained by Sunday Schools or brought up by Christian parents. If they were willing to be rescued they were sent to live in a premises belonging to the Female Presentative and Reformatory Institution. For each woman saved, the secretary of that organisation received £5 from the midnight meeting movement.
By 1881 Hephzibah was a housekeeper in charge of one of these homes for fallen women on Euston Square in London, rehabilitating women and training them to be placed in domestic service or other gainful employment. Her sister Betsy was the matron of the same institution. This was not unlike the Catholic system of penitentiaries at convents for young women and girls who had strayed away from the path of “good morals”, but was accessed by those of all denominations, and were seen more as social reform than purging evil from the spirit.
The homes for fallen women were part of this educated Victorian drive to improve society – whether religion-driven, or based on social reform principles – by returning these women to a moral life. Some were reportedly stricter than others, while at least some appeared understanding as to the factors and needs that had driven their inmates to the place they had found themselves.
This was usually by strict, structural measures for living, with a good dose of Christianity, and very little wriggle room for inmates. There were many such establishments in cities of the time, particularly in London, and the most famous of these was Urania Cottage in Shepherd’s Bush, set up and run by Charles Dickens and Lady Burdett-Coutts, and was set up in the 1840s.
This particular home in Euston Square had been founded in 1857, as one of five by 1863, as the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution. By this point the homes were run under Reverend Edward W Thomas, alongside his wife Maria, and were dependent on voluntary contributions from the public to keep going. Euston Square received and dealt with all the applications for the whole suite of homes, so part of Hephzibah and Betsy’s jobs would have been welcoming new inmates into the system. They employed a female registrar to help with the paperwork and placing.
Inmates at Euston Square were given “womanly” tasks to undertake – domestic work, laundry and needlework – during the day, then in the evening they were also taught to read and write. Hephzibah and Betsy would have been at the forefront of this drive for a moral pathway, exhibiting deep faith and “proper” behaviour for women, but also would have been involved in the care of women who had lived at the sharp end of poverty and neglect – so would have seen and known a great deal of what went on in the less-documented reaches of Victorian society. Once the inmates had been reformed and were considered to be back on a moral pathway, they were found suitable situations – usually domestic servant positions in the houses of the wealthy.
Initially the Euston Square home had been intended for “the unfallen”, so poor rather than immoral women, whereas the other four were designated as reformatories. It’s possible that this distinction had gone by 1881, however. Adverts portrayed the homes as for the “Friendless and Fallen”. “Nearly 200 poor young females are fed, lodged, clothed, and instructed, and, after probation, are provided with suitable situations,” says one of the adverts appealing for donations. More about the home and the institution as a whole can be found here: http://www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonLFPRI/
Under Hephzibah and Betsy’s care on the 1881 census there are 29 women. Most are training to be general servants, though there is one ballet dancer there. By 1891 the situation is very similar, as the inmates include an actress, but Hephzibah and Betsy have left the home and a Sarah Hamer has taken over instead. At this time there were at least six homes in the scheme, plus an all-night refuge that anyone could wander into. An advert asking for donations at Christmas in 1884 says that they had 192 women and girls in the homes at that point, and 5000 meals needed to be provided each week.
Hephzibah, after leaving the employ of the London Female Preventative Reformatory Institution, founded a lodging house in Lewisham – putting her considerable housekeeping skills to good use, but perhaps with less troublesome boarders. However, most of her residents were her sisters – Betsy, widowed Eliza, and Susannah who had worked as a servant and never married.
As she aged, Hephzibah’s deep faith and Christian good works meant that she was an ideal candidate for an alms house. She moved into the Bethel Asylum, a set of twelve dwellings intended for aged women, on Havil Street in Camberwell. Though called an asylum, it was actually just a more comfortable place for women like her to spend their final years. The building, now private housing, is two storeys high and grade II listed. She lived with a group of other elderly women together in the building.
Hephzibah died in 1918, aged 89. She was still living at the Bethel Asylum at the time. Betsy had predeceased her in 1912.