Urania Cottage, Dickens’ Home for “Fallen Women”

Urania Cottage was one of Charles Dickens’ most beloved pet projects. 
It was established, like many others of its time, to attempt the reclaimationof women from the dregs of society in order to make them fit for new lives.   This blog page researches the history, successes, and failures of this enterprising venture. 
Urania House – Nearly 100 women walked through these doors looking for a way to better lives.
Urania Cottage – What was it?
 
Urania cottage was an asylum established by Charles Dickens and his philanthropist friend Angela Georgina Burdett-Couttsto rehabilitate former prostitutes and other “fallen women.”  It was a major element in Dickens’ already busy schedule, but he continued his commitment and ran the house for twelve years.  It is thought that about a hundred women graduated from Urania House between 1847 and 1859.The idea for the house was Miss Burdett-Coutts’, and Dickens initially resisted.  However, Dickens soon envisioned a project different from other houses of reform which included harsh conditions designed to punish women (Slater169).  Dickens wanted to provide an environment where these troubled women could learn to read and write, gain domestic skills, and work toward reintegrating into society.  Ultimately, Dickens was sold on the idea of the house, and Miss Burdett-Coutts was sold on its liberal approach. The house’s goals were to teach these women skills and redeem their moral fiber so that they could pursue eventual marriages in the colonies.  The reclamation of tainted women was not a new concept in Victorian England, but Dickens’ plan differed in his vision of colonial emigration, usually to places like British South Africa or Australia.  Dickens’ goal for Urania Cottage was to achieve an almost magical transformation in these women that involved not only changes in their habits, attitudes, and morals; but also changes in their very location (Auerbach 181). 
 
Reasons for Urania Cottage
 
Prostitution was a fact of life in Victorian England, and there were three prevailing attitudes toward it – condemnation, acceptance with regulation, and reformation.  Dickens adopted the stance of reformation and took steps to do more than just discuss it in the drawing room (Davis 326).  He combined a literary portrayal of falleness through characters like Nance in Oliver Twist with a pragmatic and practical approach with his dedication to Urania Cottage (Rogers).

 The women Dickens sought to help were referred to as “fallen women.”  Fallen implied a pre-marital sexual experience which was seen as a precursor to prostitution.  The ideal woman was supposed to be passive in every way, including sexually; however, men’s sexual appetites were simply viewed as evidence of their different natures.  If the wife is passive but the husband needs aggression, the logical end result is that he seeks that alternate experience with a deviant woman – a prostitute (Rogers).

In this cartoon from Punch magazine, the term "gay" refers to prostitution not homosexuality.

 In 1857, there were 8,600 prostitutes known to police, but the actual number may have been close to ten times that many.  Prostitution, along with drug and alcohol abuse, was viewed as a threat to society and the moral fiber of its members.  Its causes were often grouped into one of three categories – falleness due to seduction, falleness due to immorality, or falleness due to poverty (Rogers).  Dickens discusses the possible reasons for falleness in his novels through characters that may have been based on the women he met and worked with from Urania Cottage.

 The sudden and somewhat extreme reaction to the existence of prostitution may be rooted in the changing and reevaluation of gender roles for middle-class Victorians (Rogers).  Prostitution is often referred to as the “oldest profession.”  That suggests it has always been a social evil, but the Victorians took their condemnation of it to new levels.  Many of the women involved were there through no fault of their own, but once “fallen,” they would not have been welcomed back to their homes – regardless of the reason they fell.  True, some chose the profession, but some were kidnapped, and some worked out of poverty. 

Urania Cottage was founded with the idea of helping women who wanted to be helped.  Dickens was very realistic when it came to the women of Urania Cottage.  There were relapses, desertions, and even fits of madness to be handled (Fiske).  He knew some of these women would take the help, be grateful, and make lives for themselves; however he also understood that some women would not be helped. 

Location, Location, Location

Once the idea for Urania Cottage took hold and the financial backing from Miss Burdett-Coutts and the support of Dickens were obtained, the next piece of the puzzle was to find a suitable location.  There were many obstacles to finding a house for a project such as this.  There were things to consider like tax rates, neighborhood concerns, proximity to things beneficial to the women, and an appropriate distance from things that might be harmful.  It was Dickens who found the cottage in Lime Grove located in Shepherd’s Bush.  He described it in a letter in 1847 as ‘retired, but cheerful.  There is a little garden and a little lawn.  The taxes are very low’ (Rogers).  There were good bus routes from town.  He described how the girls could catch a bus from Piccadilly or go to Hammersmith and walk.  He was also secretive about the location of the house, maybe to protect the girls from the scrutiny and judgment of the neighbors (Hartley).

Aphrodite Urania - Goddess of Heavenly Love

The original name Urania Cottage was kept by Dickens probably because Aphrodite Urania  was the goddess of heavenly love (what these women were hopefully seeking) as opposed to Aphrodite who was the goddess of physical love (the very thing that got them in trouble in the first place.)  The term “cottage” was kept because it sounded homey as opposed to names such as The British Penitent Female Refuge, another existing institution whose goal was the reformation and reclamation of the fallen woman (Slater 269).

Dickens found the house and promptly had it furnished, arranged, and decorated before he showed it to Miss Burdett-Coutts.  He decorated the living room with framed quotes from Jeremy Taylor, Isaac Barrow, and Jesus.  These were, of course, in addition to his own inscriptions which referred to ‘the advantages of order, punctuality, and good temper’ (Bodenheimer 139). 

Dickens – Large and In-Charge at Urania Cottage

Dickens was certainly interested in the charitable aspects of the Urania Cottage, but he seemed to truly be interested in the day to day running of such an operation.  “For him it was like writing a novel but with real people” (Hartley). 

One of things that Dickens insisted upon was that Urania Cottage be referred to as a ‘Home’ to separate it from the idea that it was an institution.  There was room for thirteen women as it opened in 1847, and women were expected to stay a year in order to tame their natures and learn household skills to prepare them for lives as servants, wives, and mothers (Bodenheimer 136). 

Dickens was instrumental in the choosing of inmates for Urania Cottage.  He scoured the prisons and workhouses looking for suitable candidates.  Each potential woman was given Dickens’ pamphlet “An Appeal to Fallen Women”.  This pamphlet avoided the promise of redemption as such, and instead, it focused on the horrors of the woman’s probable future if she continued on her present course. The pamphlet promised the substitution of ‘an active, cheerful, healthy life’ for the supposed horrors (Bodenheimer 138).

Male and Female Prisoners

If a woman showed interest in entering the program, then Dickens would personally interview her before placing her in the house.  However, not many women would voluntarily commit themselves to forced domesticity and emigrations (which might have sounded a lot like penal transportation to some of these women with criminal histories).  Of course, being willing was not Dickens’ only requirement.  Candidates also had to meet his rigorous standards of truthfulness and responsibility.  Dickens was a shrewd and exacting interviewer and was not willing to hear the women blame things like ‘the drink’ for their problems. Dickens stated, ‘If a notion arose that wearing brass buttons led to crime…we should answers as, “I was happy till I wore brass buttons,” “Brass buttons did it,” “Buttons is the cause of my being here,” all down long columns of grave return’  (Bodenheimer 137).  Dickens required truthfulness as his first principle, and truthfulness is addressed in An Appeal to Fallen Women when Dickens asks women to ‘be truthful in every word you speak.  Do this, and all the rest is easy’ (Bodenheimer 139). 

In addition to selecting the inmates, Dickens also helped interview, hire, and train the matrons or superintendents of the house.  This particular aspect of management provided many challenges until Miss Burdett-Coutts produced a Mrs. Mason in 1849, of whom Dickens thoroughly approved.  Nevertheless, Dickens continued to be called upon to sort out various crises (conflict, theft, insubordination, and escape), all of which were part of daily life at Urania Cottage (Bodenheimer 137).

If a woman became a part of Urania Cottage, Dickens would interview her in private and record her story in his Case Book , not by name – only by a case number.  Dickens would then instruct the woman to never tell her story again, to leave it behind her in her quest to make herself into someone new without fear that someone will have knowledge of her past.  Other than Dickens, Miss Burdett-Coutts is the only other soul with access to the volume.  Dickens told the matrons only what he felt was necessary.  During the planning phase of the ‘Home,’ Dickens related that he wanted to avoid the idea that a woman’s past life was a social disgrace and instead, treat it as ‘destructive to herself, and that there is no hope in it, or her, as long as she pursues it’.   Just as “An Appeal to Fallen Women” promised, Women would be ‘removed from all who have knowledge of their past career, and will being life afresh, and be able to win a good name and character.’  Interestingly enough, this is another place where Dickens did more that talk about great ideas like leaving one’s past behind.  His own autobiographical account was safely locked away in John Forster’s desk drawer.  It seems that Dickens truly did believe that a sealed confession of one’s shameful or embarrassing past opened the door for a changed future (Bodenheimer 138).

There may be concern that Dickens used these women’s stories as fodder for his fiction, but there is no evidence that the Case Book was ever used or referenced except for an article entitled “Home for Homeless Women” which appeared in Household Words in April 1853 (Bodenheimer 138).  As a matter of fact, his most famous prostitutes (Nancy in Olvier Twist) appeared in his novels long before his involvement with Urania Cottage.  The only character that may have been based on a woman from Urania Cottage was Tattycoram in Little Dorrit; however, this is up for debate because of the langauge and word choice Dickens gives his prostitutes. They don’t sound or act like true “fallen women” (Tomalin).

 The Day-to-Day Reformation of the “Fallen Woman”

Victorian Women

 To help ‘the formation of habits of firmness and self-restraint,’ Dickens suggested ‘Captain Maconnochie’s Mark System’.  This good conduct system was used for prisoners on Norfolk Island, and Dickens created nine categories where these women could earn good and bad marks; not surprisingly, truthfulness was the first.  The others included ‘Industry, Temper, Propriety of Conduct, and Conversation, Temperance, Order, Punctuality, Economy, Cleanliness’ (Bodenheimer 139).  Marks were given for good conduct and deducted ‘for every instance of ill-temper, disrespect, bad language…’ (Rogers).

Dickens did not want to women to simply conform to the rhetoric of reform which often included heavy doses of religion.  Again, Dickens understood that women would conform and learn what to say and do, rather than actually change their habits.  So instead of religion, Dickens “preached the doctrine of Home.”  Miss Burdett-Coutts was not convinced that the absence of a strict religious doctrine was the way to go, but Dickens carefully managed her impression by sliding neatly from religion as the basis to a “system of training” based on many Christian principles (Bodenheimer 139).  Dickens wrote to Miss Burdett-Coutts that the course of the program for these women should be ‘steady and firm…cheerful and hopeful. Order and punctuality, cleanliness, the whole routine of household duties – as washing, mending, cooking – the establishment itself would supply the means of teaching practically to every one’ (Rogers).

The daily routine at Urania Cottage was absolutely structured, and the girls were constantly watched.  Outings included church on Sundays, exercise sessions, and working the small gardens (Bodenheimer 136).  They had school for two hours every morning; Dickens was appalled at their being unable to read and write.  However, their intellectual well being was not his only concern.  In addition to formal learning, he also advocated the exercise of their imaginations with work in the flower gardens and with music (Hartley).   

There was little privacy or ownership for the women of Urania Cottage.  All mail (incoming and outgoing) was read by a matron of the school.  The women made their own dresses from fabrics in one of four colors chosen by Dickens himself.  He chose the colors specifically to avoid the stigma of uniforms.  However, the dresses did not exactly belong to the women.  If one of the inmates fled wearing clothing from Urania Cottage, she could be arrested for theft of property (Bodenheimer 136). 

While this does sound somewhat harsh, Dickens was always concerned that women entering the house should be encouraged rather than constantly reminded of their sins (Rogers).  Dickens’ principle of discipline is revealed in one of his letters to Miss Burdett-Coutts.  He states that these women need to be ‘tempted to virtue… [and] cannot be dragged, driven, or frightened’  into it.  He suggests that there be two guides:  ‘first to consider how best to get them there, and how best to keep them there’ (Bodenheimer  136).

Dickens looked for ways to instill pride in the women.  For example, he reported in “Home for Homeless Women” that each Monday morning, the names of girls were ‘framed and glazed’ and attached to whatever room(s) they were responsible for. He felt that this ‘was found to inspire them with greater pride in good housewifery, and a greater sense of shame in the reverse’ (Bodenheimer 140).   

 Bad Apples at Urania Cottage 

And Some Were Just Born Bad!

 Dickens was obviously aware there would be challenges and even failures at Urania Cottage.  He often counseled Miss Burdett-Coutts and tried to warn her to limit her expectation of success.  He writes, ‘There is no doubt that many of them would go on well for some time, and would then be seized with a violent fit of the most extraordinary passion, apparently quite motiveless, and insist on going away.  There seems to be something inherent in their course of life, which engenders and awakens a sudden restlessness and recklessness which may be long suppressed, but breaks out like madness’ (Fiske).  He was a proponent of giving these women a second chance after a ‘violent fit’ by allowing a twenty four hour time frame during which the woman in question would be counseled about what she was giving up and encouraged to get back on track (Rogers).  However, as the years wore on, he regretted some of his decisions where leniency had triumphed over suspicion (Bodenheimer 140).

Even though Dickens was pragmatic about the women of Urania Cottage, there is evidence of anger when there were instances of rebellion or insubordination.  His letters included tales of bad apples who were expelled from the cottage (Bodenheimer 140).  These letters give not only the facts, but also reveal something about Dickens’ reactions. He describes Sesina Bollard, a woman of Urania Cottage, as ‘the most deceitful little minx in this town – I never saw such a draggled piece of fringe upon the skirt of all that is bad…she would corrupt a nunnery in a fortnight’.   One of the other girls, Jemima Hiscock, ‘forces open the door of the little beer cellar with knives and got dead drunk…’ on beer that was thought to have been ‘laced with spirits from over the wall’ (Rogers).  Dickens truly found himself in a ‘might state of indignation’ when he discovered that two girls had robbed a matron.  He promptly announced their expulsion to the entire house to be effective the following day.  The following day arrived and one of the thieves thought to escape with her money and some clothing before her official expulsion, but Dickens had placed a policeman there to apprehend her.  She was promptly charged and convicted – something Dickens felt was instructive to the others (Bodenheimer 141).

Dickens tried to protect the girls from temptation from ‘over the wall’ by placing a police constable to watch over the cottage and keep away any potential threats to the salvation of the inmates.  Unfortunately, that had it conflicts as well.  Dickens wrote to Miss Burdett-Coutts of an very unfortunate turn of events where the police constable was ‘Yesterday morning between four and five…found in the parlour with Sarah Hyam’ (Rogers).

 Graduates of Urania Cottage

Dickens’ own count reveals that of the first fifty-four women of Urania Cottage, thirty emigrated and sent back good reports of themselves, fourteen had voluntarily left the house, and only 10 were expelled.  That is a pretty fair record of success given the challenges of instilling responsibility and respect in women who were difficult and often petulant.

Only recently have scholars begun to try and trace the alumni of Urania House, a seemingly impossible task because all of these women returned to the streets or immigrated to the colonies; however,  Jenny Hartley took on this task in her book Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women.  Harley’s research has literally spanned the globe.  Not all of the girls who graduated had the fairytale transformation that Dickens wished for them.  Even though Julia Mosley, a Urania Cottage graduate, married a bullock driver in Adelaide, she died at age 28, likely from a sexually transmitted disease acquired in her previous life.  Jane Westaway married an American miner who may have been tempted by the Gold Rush to travel to Australian.  While many women’s fates had been lost to time, Hartley was able to trace the descendents of two known Urania Cottage graduates, Rosina Gale and Rhena Pollard

 Rhena Pollard was a Sussex girl who entered Urania Cottage from a prison sentence.  She and Dickens had several run-ins while she was at the cottage, and her contrary nature continued even into her success.  She turned up in Canada while everyone else stayed in Australia.  Pollard’s success is apparent in that she brought up seven children on an Ontario homestead and joined the Salvation Army.  Pollard is also thought to possible the model for Tattycoram in Little Dorrit.

An illustration from "Little Dorrit"

Another young woman who found success and a new life was Rosina Gale. Rosina apparently settled in Australia after her time at Urania Cottage.  While on the trail of Rosina’s fate, Hartley tracked down an elderly woman in a Melbourne retirement home.  When asked if the woman knew the name Rosina Gale, she responded that it had been the name of her great-grandmother.  The family had no idea that Mr. Dickens had a hand in sending Rosina to Australia.

 The Legacy of Urania Cottage

The social project of Urania Cottage collapsed shortly after Dickens’ involvement with it ended in 1858. There is speculation as to why Dickens pulled out of the project.  One school of thought suggests that his failing health and demanding schedule not longer left room for the demands of the house.  Another suggesting is that his relationship with Miss Burdett-Coutts cooled after his separation from his first wife, Catherine.  This idea may also have ties to the thought that his affair with the nineteen-year-old actress, Nelly Ternan, put him on morally shaky ground to be directing the rehabilitation of the fallen women of Urania Cottage.

Regardless of why Dickens’ involvement ended, I think I can say with certainty that he would have been pleased with Urania Cottage’s track record.  According to his own calculations about half of the women who entered the house in its twelve year run, made successful emigrations and found themselves new lives (Bodenheimer 141). 

Hartley made another discovery about Urania Cottage. She states, “While I was working on the book, I walked down Lime Grove and was moved to discover that there’s a hostel for the homeless there today. So really, the story has come full circle.” 

Bibliography

 Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: the Life of a Victorian Myth. Harvard University Press, 1982. 181. Print.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. Knowing Dickens. Cornell University Press, 2007. 136-141.

Davis, Paul Benjamin. Charles Dickens A To Z, The Essential Reference To His Life And Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998.

 Hartley, Jenny. Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. The University of Michigan, 2010. Print.

 Rogers, Jane. “Dickens and His Involvement in Urania Cottage.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. 27 May 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2011. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/rogers/8.html

 Rogers, Jane. “Dickens’s Thoughts on the Success of Urania Cottage and Those of the Inmates Themselves.” The Victorian Web: An Overview. 27 May 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.                 http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/rogers/10.html.

 Rogers, Jane. “What Was ‘Fallenness’ and What Was Dickens’s Interest?” The Victorian Web: An Overview. 27 May 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.  http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/rogers/2.html.

 Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens. Yale University Press, 2009. 169, 269.

Tomlin, Claire. “The House That Charles Built.” Guardian. 19 Dec 2008: n. page. Web. 29 Jan. 2012.                http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/dec/20/charles-dickens-fallen-women-review

6 responses to “Urania Cottage, Dickens’ Home for “Fallen Women”

  1. I love love love this! This is actually so interesting and gives real insight into Dickens and his life and times. Wow!

  2. You have done a wonderful job here!

  3. Pingback: Bleak House – Pheckless Philanthropy | Revisting Dickens

  4. K.L.

    Hi there, my great, great, great grandmother was known as Rosina Gale, and she was sent to Australia as a single woman. Could you possibly contact me.
    Thanks.

  5. Pingback: Rescued Lives? ‘Fallen women’ in Victorian Society | Workhouse Tales

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