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  • Writer's pictureDonna Moore

Grandgore...Part 1

A black and white photo of Glasgow's Lock Hospital in Rottenrow from 1955 - an abandoned building with boarded up or smashed windows.
Glasgow's Lock Hospital, shortly before it was demolished in 1955

Well, having eased you in gently with a lovely post about cakes and wallpaper colours, I’m now going to talk about syphilis. Buckle up, dear reader.



A chance conversation with a lovely woman called Anna Forrest, who used to be the librarian at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow, introduced me to the ‘lock hospital’ in Glasgow’s Rotten Row - one of Victorian Glasgow’s best kept secrets. Anna told me about this mysterious and intriguing…hospital? place of incarceration?...where women – and it was only women – were treated for syphilis. The sign above the door read Treatment – Knowledge – Reformation, and the more I found out about it, the clearer it became that the Glasgow Lock Hospital was about the policing of women’s bodies and I knew I wanted to write about it. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, a little foray into the history of syphilis. Don’t say I’m not good to you.


In 1495 French soldiers, many of whom were mercenaries from a range of different countries, invaded Naples and then went on a celebratory spree. Shortly thereafter, many of them came down with a horrible new illness. When they returned to France and, from there, to their homelands, they took this disease back with them. At first, it wasn’t recognised as being sexually transmitted; instead, it was viewed as a punishment from God for sins committed.


By the end of 1495 the epidemic had spread throughout France, Switzerland and Germany, reaching the UK in 1497. The disease was called by different names in every country, most of the names blaming either the country next door, or another country they were in a huff with. The Russians called it the Polish disease, the Poles called it the German disease, and the Germans, the Spanish, the English, most of Scandinavia and the Italians blamed the French. The French decided to blame the Italians. The Japanese called it the Portuguese disease, the Portuguese and the Dutch called it the Spanish disease. Here in Scotland, on the other hand, we decided not to blame anybody and went for the rather fabulous and dramatic ‘grandgore’.


In the UK, lock hospitals – originally for patients with leprosy, and so-called, possibly, from the French term ‘loques’ (referring to the bandages used for leprosy sores) rather than the fact that people were locked up in them – began to be re-purposed as hospitals to treat syphilis. Lock hospitals and lock wards sprung up in places where the military were stationed (for obvious reasons), with government run lock hospitals in places such as Aldershot, Colchester and Portsmouth and voluntary institutions in London, Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol. Other cities added a lock ward to ordinary hospitals there.


The Glasgow Lock Hospital for “Unfortunate Females with Venereal Disease” was founded in 1805 at 151 Rottenrow Lane, but it didn’t actually exist in the medical establishment records until 1807. It had only 11 beds and moved to larger premises at 41 Rottenrow in 1845. It looked like the ordinary tenement in the photo at the top of this post. Above the door was a sign saying “Treatment – Knowledge – Reformation”.  I think it was the Reformation part the authorities were most interested in. While in England and other parts of the UK the Contagious Diseases Acts were brought in, in an attempt to control prostitution and reduce the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, Glasgow - and Scotland as a whole - didn’t follow these Acts. Instead, Glasgow used its own institutions to attack what it perceived as a sexual threat to the city's Victorian establishment. An unholy triumvirate of Alexander McCall, the Chief Constable of Glasgow from 1870; Dr Alexander Paterson, a surgeon at Glasgow Lock Hospital; and the directors of the Glasgow Magdalene Institution for the Repression of Vice and Rehabilitation of Penitent Females (which was just as horrible as it sounds, eventually closing in 1958 following an inquiry into the ill-treatment of inmates.), developed the Glasgow System. This was a system of police repression plus institutional incarceration which criminalised working-class women. If the police arbitrarily decided women were ‘prostitutes’ (I’m using their term - the inverted commas represent the venom in my voice), they were liable to a fine or imprisonment. Some of these women were released from prison on condition that they accepted treatment in Glasgow Lock Hospital and then moral instruction in the Magdalene Institution. Once in the Lock, women had to submit to an examination (I’ll spare you the details, but it’s mentioned briefly in The Unpicking). If they didn’t submit, they wouldn’t be allowed into the Lock Hospital, nor the Magdalene Institution, and there was nowhere else for them to go except prison, which, conveniently, was located not far from the bottom end of Rottenrow.


Page from a book about the Benevolent Institutions of Glasgow. showing an advert for the Glasgow Magdaslene Institution (Lochburn House) in Maryhill
Glasgow Magdalene Institution in Maryhill

Rottenrow was not a particularly salubrious area of Glasgow at the time. Thanks to the aforementioned Anna Forrest, I have a lovely old map of Glasgow and it shows lots of other institutions in the area, including the ‘Asylum for Indigent and Old Men and Old Women’s Home’ a ‘Boys Home’ and the ‘Industrial and Reformatory School’ and that map, along with one of my other favourite research tools – the Post Office Directories for the era - give me loads of useful information about what buildings, shops and people were there at the time. Incidentally, Rottenrow was sometimes referred to as Asylum Row because at the top - in what was then Parliamentary Road – were the ‘Glasgow Royal Lunatic Asylum’ (until the 1840s when the Asylum moved and the building became the Glasgow City Poorhouse) and the Magdalene Institution (until the 1860s when that moved to Maryhill which is where it is in the advert above).


Original Victorian era map of Rottenrow, sadly with a rip down the middle, showing the Lock Hospital and various other institutions.
Original Victorian map showing Rottenrow

There was, therefore, a whole life full of misery located in Rottenrow, starting with birth in the Rottenrow Maternity Hospital and going downhill from there, moving between Industrial School, prison, Lock Hospital, Magdalene, Asylum and Poorhouse.


So, the Chief Constable, McCall and Dr Paterson of the Lock Hospital decided that syphilis was caused and spread by women (what a surprise) and that infected women had to be taken off the streets (not the men, of course; just the women). McCall’s comment to a Parliamentary Commission in 1881 was: “Let them betake themselves to some honest occupation.” If a woman was thought to be a ‘prostitute’ - either by her demeanour (god forbid you had a rough voice, swore, drank or were ‘unfeminine’), or by her dress (woe betide you if your bonnet was considered too flamboyant, or your skirt too garish) - she could be arrested on the spot and sent to Duke Street prison. All you really had to do in Victorian Glasgow to be termed a ‘prostitute’ was to be working class. According to McCall’s definition a 'prostitute' was any woman the police spoke to on the streets who couldn’t give a satisfactory account of how she earned her living. And even if you did have a job, that didn’t help much, since Dr Paterson, when told by women who came to the Lock Hospital that they worked in factories or mills, or as washerwomen or dressmakers, decided that they were all sex workers anyway.


To help round up these ‘suspect women’, McCall brought in 150 special constables to visit Glasgow’s theatres and music halls (clearly, ‘actress’ wasn’t considered a suitable occupation) and literally measure the amount of flesh the women performing had on show. If this was deemed to be ‘too much flesh’, the women would be taken away to be examined to see if they had syphilis. If the examination showed that they did, they were put in chains and taken up to the Lock. Incidentally, not long after those 150 special constables were appointed, 64 of them went off sick with syphilis. Quelle surprise. Abuses of power abounded. And, needless to say, those policemen weren’t taken out of society and sent to a hospital, religious institution or prison.


Next week, in Part Two – the Lock Hospital itself and the treatment for syphilis. You have been warned, dear Reader. And do let me know in the comments if you've heard of Glasgow's Lock Hospital before.

Page from the Post Office Directory 1893-94 showing people who lived in Rottenrow and businesses and institutions that were there
Post Office Directory of Rottenrow in 1893-94

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6 Comments


Guest
Dec 11, 2023

I'm reading 'The Unpicking' at the moment, so this is incredibly interesting and useful (and shocking and yet oh so unsurprising!) extra context, Donna. Thank you for writing this, and for bringing your brilliant book into the world - giving faces, voices, experiences and feelings to women just like those in these institutions. I am loving your new website too!

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Donna Moore
Donna Moore
Dec 15, 2023
Replying to

Thanks so much, Sue!

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Ewan McGhee
Ewan McGhee
Dec 10, 2023

A History of Syphilis - who knew it would be so gripping!

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Guest
Dec 10, 2023
Replying to

Indeed :-)

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Ewan McGhee
Ewan McGhee
Dec 10, 2023

Very enlightening. Was going to ask why they were called Lock Hospitals, but then you had obviously read my mind. Particularly liked the bit about Rotten Row and the 'cradle-to-grave' institutions - though it was hardly the NHS

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Donna Moore
Donna Moore
Dec 10, 2023
Replying to

Thanks so much, Ewan! Yes, it struck me as I was writing about all the institutions that you could just go from one to the other and what a horrible life that would be. I'm csure that at least for some part of its history, women going into the Maternity Hospital full of optimism didn't know anything about the horrible fate women were experiencing further down the street.

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