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  • Writer's pictureDonna Moore

Grandgore...Part 2

Floorplan of Glasgow Lock Hospital
Floorplan of Glasgow Lock Hospital

So, in my previous blog post I left you at the doors of the Glasgow Lock Hospital, with its sign: Treatment, Knowledge, Reformation looming above your head. Inpatient lock wards and hospitals were often only for women. Working men were often treated as out-patients while wealthy men and women were treated privately in their own homes. And what was in store for you when you entered? That it was nothing nice I’m sure will come as no surprise. On arrival, you had your head shaved and were de-loused and given a list of the rules that had to be followed – for a while you even had to sign a contract saying you would abide by them.

A page from an 1882 report of the Glasgow Lock Hospital showing the rules which had to be followed.
Rules of Glasgow Lock Hospital

In the summer, you had to be out of bed by 7am and in bed by 8pm; in the winter it was 8am and 7pm. If you left before you were cured, you weren’t able to come back. You had to attend religious services and you weren’t allowed to bring any books in unless the Chaplain said you could and no provisions other than bread, butter and sugar were to be brought in by or for you.

There are no individual records available for the women who were in the Lock. Maybe there are some languishing in a basement somewhere; maybe they were all thrown out, who knows. What I do have is a report written by Dr Alexander Patterson (remember him?), based on evidence he gave  before the Select Committee of the House of Commons on the Contagious Diseases Acts and read before the Glasgow Medico-Chirurgical Society on 3rd November, 1882. The report gives stats on the number of patients in the hospital, every year between 1805 and 1881; whether they were dismissed cured, died or classed as “irregular” (ie they either left of their own accord before they were considered cured, or they were thrown out for misconduct); what their average stay was, how many women were there on average every night and the average cost of looking after them.

a page of statistics from 1855 to 1881 showing the number of women treated, how long they were there for, how much it cost to look after them
Statistics from the Glasgow Lock

In 1881, for example, 349 women in total were admitted and 24 were still in from the previous year. Of those, 347 were dismissed as cured, 3 died and 3 were ‘irregular’ (dismissed for fighting, apparently). The average stay was 27 days, the average number of women there each night was 29 and it cost an average of 36 shillings and 8 pence to look after them, so just over a shilling a day.

A table from the 1882 report showing given occupations of patients in the 10 years from 1 January 1870 to 1 January 1880
Occupations of patients

There’s also a table showing occupations of patients admitted during the 10 years from 1st January 1870 to 1st January 1880, although Dr Patterson doesn’t trust these, as I mentioned last week. As far as he’s concerned, they are all “Queen’s Women”, as he calls them. I love this table for its social history and list of jobs that give a real sense of women’s work at the time. Along with the largest numbers of mill girls and domestic servants are jobs such as bleachfield workers, French polishers, tobacco spinners and calenderers (I had to look that up – it was someone who pressed and finished paper or textiles using big rollers), as well as less common employments of japanners, fringers, brass cutters and rivetters. Incidentally, over the ten years there are 9 admissions whose occupation is given as “school girl”. Those school girls ranged from 7 to 14 years old. The youngest, incidentally, was noted by her doctor “as having contracted the disease herself”. How, precisely, that happened, he didn’t go on to say. One aspect I mention in The Lock section of The Unpicking is the belief that “if a man has contracted venereal disease and he can have connection with a virgin he will transmit that disease to her and himself escape free” and this was known as the “abominable superstition”.

Evidence of Mr J E Lane, senior surgeon of the London Lock Hospital in front of the Royal Commission on Venereal Diseases (1914)
The Abominable Superstition

As for food, porridge and milk was given twice daily, with a main meal of broth and beef, pea soup or rice and milk.

A page from the 1882 report showing the weekly menu.
The weekly menu. Mmmmm

I said that there weren’t any records of who the women were but I do have some names. In 1891, twenty-three women were recorded as being in Glasgow Lock Hospital on the night of the census. They were between the ages of fifteen and thirty-nine, all designated ‘Patient’ and all occupations were recorded as ‘Prostitute’ except two recorded as domestic servants. In 1901, there were also twenty-three women recorded. They were aged between seventeen and forty-two, and all designated ‘Inmate’. This time their occupations were given: dressmaker, hawker, biscuit packer, tobacco worker, box maker, comie (possibly comic?) singer, servant. Using Ancestry I tried to trace all forty-six, but most of the names led to a completely dead end. None of the dates of birth were exact and no other details of the women are available. I wanted to tell the story of Glasgow Lock Hospital and the girls and women in it around the time of The Lock, but how could I? Other than a list of occupations and a snapshot of two nights, ten years apart, I didn’t even know their names. So this was quite frustrating. I did use a couple of the names – one from each year of the census – Marion Cherry and Lillie Finlayson. Lillie’s place of birth was given as Demerara in the West Indies, which I was intrigued by, and I incorporated this into a short scene in The Lock.

Details from 1891 census
1891 Census
Details from 1901 census
1901 Census

So, onto the treatment…this isn’t pleasant, you have been warned. The treatment for syphilis during the nineteenth century was mercury. If you were a man, or wealthy, it was probably a mercury tablet. If you were in a lock hospital, it was likey to be a mercurial vapour bath. One of these was installed in a sealed room in the basement at the Glasgow Lock in 1854. Quite frankly, it was a toss-up which got you first – syphilitic madness or mercury poisoning. And, of course, at least for a while, the madness caused by third stage syphilis meant you only had a short way to go to the Asylum at the top of Rottenrow.  

Raw mercury was heated to release vapours. The women sat above the bath with their sexual organs exposed so the mercury could burn out the infection. The vapours burned everything else they came into contact with as well, leading many to a speedy and painful death. They lost their noses and their teeth and produced a bucket of saliva every day as a result of the mercury. In 1882 Dr Patterson noted that although mercury caused blindness and the destruction of the nose, the treatment continued to be used. Nice.

With better cures for venereal disease being developed in the twentieth century – presumably ones which didn’t kill you - the Glasgow Lock Hospital eventually shut in 1947 and the building was demolished in 1955. A couple of years ago I gave a talk to students in a building just up the road from where the Lock Hospital had been. Unsurprisingly, none of them had heard of it. Incidentally, when the site was being surveyed to build student accommodation, the ground had to be treated, as mercury had seeped into the earth, along with the pain and suffering of the nameless women who came and went in the Lock over more than a century.

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Ewan McGhee
Ewan McGhee
Dec 19, 2023

It beggars belief, how barbaric and backward it all was, both medically and in terms of the prejudice. Not much improvement, if any, on using leaches. Although, with regard to the Abominable Superstition particularly, the men certainly sound like vampires


Dec 15, 2023

Horrific! And now I'm wondering what effect the mercury tablets had, being delivered straight into the digestive tract...

Donna Moore
Donna Moore
Dec 16, 2023
Replying to

Nothing good! You could also get mercury as an ointment, too. I don't think any of them would have been particularly good options!

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