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Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

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A 'fall from grace' or a push from the patriarchy?

Cecily O'Neill is a local A level History student who offered to write a blog post for us about a local subject, as she is hoping to read History at university. Here she writes about the York Penitentiary on Bishophill, which features in our poverty research project (see here). She explains some surprising features, such how as any woman seen out at night in York might have been seen as a prostitute, and how the Penitentiary management was organised along typical gendered lines.


The site of York Penitentiary on Bishophill

The ‘fallen woman’ is an archaic term, traditionally associated with a woman who has ‘fallen from the grace of God’. During the 19th century however, this phrase became inextricably linked to chastity. This image was perpetuated by art, literature and perhaps most prominently, the workings and structure of society itself. It was used to pigeon-hole women into their ‘rightful’ place in the home, hence why the actions of militant Suffragettes, for example, were deemed so shocking. By entering the ‘public sphere’ a woman pushed against the deeply ingrained concept of ‘gendered space’ in Victorian society. Works of art and literature, such as Augustus Egg’s triptych ‘Past and Present’ and Dickens’ juxtaposition of Biddy and Estella in ‘Great Expectations’, explore the concept of the ‘fallen woman’ and the attributes of a ‘good’ Victorian woman respectively. Although such vivid depictions of the Victorian woman have stood the ‘test of time’, this ideal image was promoted in other, arguably more harmful ways.  

Through my study of a women's penitentiary located on Bishophill in York. I have come to see how this institution promoted the Victorian theory of ‘separate spheres’, in an effort to protect society from ‘dangerous’, ‘fallen’ women. It seems to me that we have adopted a too ‘present-centric’ view of the work of reformers. Thus in order to fully understand the impact of the York Penitentiary Society (formed in 1882), we need to contextualise their actions within Victorian society.

My research into this institution, the refuge which they opened and the extent of its impact on wider society, sheds a new light on how our perception of history can become too grounded in our contemporary understanding of the past, and therefore promotes a surface level, isolated look at events, individuals and architecture. The purpose of this article is not to paint reformers in a negative light, but rather to allow one to adopt a holistic understanding of this case study in its rightful context.    

Although I cannot speak for the intentions of reformers (this will be addressed in due course), the penitentiary building itself reflected Victorian fears and ideals, acting as a constant reminder of the consequences of becoming disreputable. The anxieties perpetuated by the prison-like confines of the building hung over York like a shadow, pervading the lives of young girls and women. Cissey Colley’s account, taken from the York Oral History Project, seems somewhat microcosmic of the Penitentiary’s role within society as a whole (1). As an ordinary member of society, her vivid account, explaining how the Penitentiary was used to control her behaviour, is therefore most likely reflective of general consensus. Her use of the verb ‘shoved’, when referencing how women were admitted to the Penitentiary, suggests a negative connotation which seems wholly antithetical to what would most likely be associated with our present day understanding of a reformatory. The fact that police officers usually brought women to the Penitentiary, implies in itself that it was a place of forced incarceration. Coercive methods such as defined periods of confinement, set timetables and compulsory labour were combined with domestic regulation, religious instruction, supervision and guidance. The incorporation of ‘familial’ forms of regulation into the strict ‘reforming’ programme administered within the institution exemplifies how Victorians viewed ‘gendered’ space (2). 

Its location, on the outskirts of the city centre, and the structure of the building itself, reflect the idea that a ‘fallen’ woman should be removed from society. The high wall surrounding the secluded garden of the Penitentiary seems strikingly emblematic of the social seclusion that came with ‘falling’, especially after 1905 when, on the instruction of the chief constable, it was topped with shards of broken glass, to prevent more inmates trying to escape this way (3). In a more literal sense, this action clearly demonstrates that ‘liberal’ and ‘promiscuous’ were seen as a danger to society, much like criminals, thus in one sense the penitentiary was a prison by another philanthropic name.

The incorporation of domestic tasks into the ‘reformation’ of ‘fallen’ women, combined with the social exclusion that came with entering the penitentiary and the lengths gone to, to prevent women escaping from its confines, demonstrate how the patriarchal ideology of ‘separate spheres’ and what it means to be an ‘improper’ woman were symbiotic. Evidently, the concept of sexual delinquency was central to the concept of gendered space, thus it seems patently obvious how an institution dedicated to reforming 'sexual delinquents' promoted the idea that women belonged to the domestic sphere. The ‘public’ sphere was perceived as a man’s place, a place of work, law and politics, whereas a woman’s place was in the ‘private’ sphere, centred around home-making, childcare and religion. The influence of promiscuous women upon York was not the only concern of the society. However, it is clear that as an institution that only catered for ‘fallen’ women, they were perceived as the predominant danger to society.

The Ladies' and Gentlemen’s Committees responsible for managing and running the reformatory helped promote this idea. Despite members of the Ladies' Committee questioning why the ‘hateful men who ruined so many girls’ were not viewed with the same critical eye as the women, it is patently obvious that the institution’s primary concern was to isolate ‘improper’ women from ‘respectable’ society (4). The hierarchical management of the Penitentiary deliberately reflected the power imbalance between genders within Victorian society as a whole. The overruling of female opinion within the institution, as well as the delegation of duties, demonstrates how the patriarchy pervaded the ins and outs of this institution. The ‘Ladies’ were in charge of the daily running of the Penitentiary, whilst the 'Gentlemen' acted as its management committee, overseeing the financial and advisory aspects. The Society promoted ‘gendered space’ both throughout York and within its own ranks, exemplifying the sheer extent of phallocentrism within Victorian society. Clearly, the ‘two-sex model’ not only influenced the working classes, but also affluent, ‘respectable’ members of society (5). 

It is clear from the shocking disparity in the punishment administered, that a woman’s behaviour was seen as more dangerous to society than a man’s. To me this piece of information seemed somewhat ironic. In a sense, a woman had the ‘power’ to topple and influence society negatively, yet a man did not. Yet it was this very power that prevented women from being given the same freedoms as men. It seems that influential women of the 19th century unlocked this as the means to gaining equal rights (the women’s suffrage movement can’t help but spring to mind) and used the barriers that had confined them, as a way of freeing themselves from the tight constraints of the Victorian patriarchy. 

The Committee’s influence upon York extended far beyond the walls of its institution. The eyes of the Penitentiary Society scoured the streets of York, from members of the Ladies' Committee searching the streets for disreputable women, to newspapers reporting on ‘disorderly’ behaviour.  Seemingly, the definition of ‘disorderly’ behaviour was directly correlated to the concept of ‘gendered space’. Night was a time reserved for men, any woman entering this male dominated space was therefore automatically seen as disreputable. Due to this, it seems highly plausible that any woman believed to be  ‘keeping late hours’ was doing so solely to profit off male sexual gratification, or perhaps this idea is equally linked to the idea of women being too ‘fragile’ to leave the domestic sphere. 

This domestic-public dichotomy evidently governed the work of the Penitentiary Society. Perhaps the greatest problem that arose from this is a complete lack of distinction between flirtatious women ‘keeping late hours’ and prostitutes soliciting on the streets. The stress placed on ‘keeping late hours’ as the mark of a disreputable woman draws attention to exactly how the Victorians perceived 'gendered space'. As highlighted by Rebecca Solnit, the phrases, ‘man of the streets’ and ‘lady of the night’, have entirely different meanings despite seeming to portray similar images on the surface.

The Penitentiary Society played into this image, with accounts of multiple women entering the house for being out late, engaging with soldiers or attending concerts. For example, Annie Armitage was brought to the Refuge and admitted as a prostitute in 1892, on the grounds of her staying out late and enjoying evenings out, despite denying ‘living an immoral life or having fallen’, and no evidence suggesting that she was a prostitute. As a verb used in the past tense, the word ‘fallen’ implies a literal process attributed to a woman’s ‘fall’. ‘Fallen’ seems to most frequently be used as an adjective describing a woman who had already become disreputable, therefore the vocabulary used in this account allows us to view women like Annie through the lens of the 19th century. In doing so, she becomes more human. One can more clearly visualise the hardships experienced by women deemed as disreputable and phrases such as ‘separate spheres’, ‘gendered space’ and ‘fallen’ take on a deeper meaning.

Although one cannot discern the true intentions of the committee and countless others like it, from my short dissection of this one case study, through conducting research into this area I’ve come to the conclusion that intention is irrelevant when looking at the Committee’s impact on society as a whole. The Penitentiary and Committee members are a product of Victorian gender ideals and social constructs, but equally they perpetuated them. The image of the ‘fallen’ woman played directly into the hands of the patriarchal system which dominated Victorian England and was effectively used to confine women to the domestic sphere. It seems obvious how the actions of Emily Davidson, the Pankhursts, Millicent Fawcett and other fighters for female suffrage were deemed so shocking, against the heavily ingrained and constricting backdrop of the ‘theory of separate spheres’. 



1. YCA, interview with Cissey Colley, born 1910, York Oral History Project, 1983.

2. Barton, ‘A Woman’s Place’, p. 89

3. York Penitentiary Society, PEN/1 Minute Books 1844-1950, 30 May 1905.

4. York Herald, 24 February 1906; documented in the York Penitentiary Society 1906 annual report.

5. The two-sex model was a term coined by Thomas Laqueur to describe the view of men and women as separate genders following the First Sexual Revolution. Women were no longer seen as an inferior subset of men who could perform similar tasks but as individuals in their own right. This is when the concept of the ‘ideal’ innocent and delicate woman was formed, as popularised and promoted by the Victorians.


Laura Harrison, ‘The Streets Have Been Watched Regularly’: the York Penitentiary Society, young working-class women, and the regulation of behaviour in the public spaces of York, c. 1845-1919' Women's History Review 2019 28 3 457-478

Victoria Leslie, 'Fallen Women', History Today Jan 2017, 67 1  (

Frances Finnegan, Poverty and Prostitution: A Study of Victorian Prostitutes in York (Cambridge, 1979).