Highgate Cemetery tour guides reveal story behind deaths of teenage prostitutes who died at ‘house of mercy’

17:00 09 June 2014

Park House in North Hill, Highgate, which housed the Highgate Penitentiary

Park House in North Hill, Highgate, which housed the Highgate Penitentiary


Ten prostitutes, the youngest only 12 years old, have laid forgotten in an unmarked grave in Highgate West Cemetery for more than a century. Volunteer cemetery tourguides Rowan Lennon and Sam Perrin reveal the story of Highgate’s lost girls and, for the first time, name them.

Christina Rossetti's poetry was influenced by her work with Highgate's 'fallen women'Christina Rossetti's poetry was influenced by her work with Highgate's 'fallen women'

Underage prostitution was as much a concern in Victorian times as it is now.

Despite the veneer of Victorian respectability, underneath lay prostitution and destitution, often supported by those who appeared to be pillars of society.

Highgate, long associated with poets, artists and literary endeavour, was not immune.

On the site of the Hillcrest estate, off North Hill, once stood Park House, an early 19th century mansion built by Mr Cooper on 60 acres. Previously an asylum, it was leased to the London Diocesan Penitentiary (LDP) in 1856 to house not a prison, but a reformatory for “fallen women”, most of whom were under 20.

A council was established in 1856 by the Bishop of London to raise funds and the London Diocesan Penitentiary, also known as the Highgate Penitentiary or House of Mercy, opened.

Part of its mission statement stated: “It has been recently stated in Parliament that there are 20,000 victims to prostitution in London.

“Many of them have been ensnared under 15 years of age. Many have returned home in their first remorse but have been thrown back again on their sinful life by harsh or injudicious treatment. In the end they perish, chiefly from consumption and not infrequently from actual want and cold during the winter months.”

The age of consent in the 19th century was 12 until 1885 when it was raised to 16 after a campaign by W.T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette.

All the blame fell on the girls for their condition, and they faced the prospect of spiritual damnation if they did not repent of their “sin”.

In the first census of the penitentiary in 1861, the youngest girl listed is Emma Jones, aged 10.

The enumerator has angrily scrawled across the census: “Penitents have all been prostitutes, for that reason their professions are not mentioned on schedule.”

Those who were accepted into the penitentiary had to be referred by a clergyman or from other refuges.

The warden, the Rev John Olivier, a strict but kindly man, was responsible for enabling the purchase of Park House instead of leasing it – a shrewd financial move. The girls stayed for two years and in that time learned to cook, sew, read and write, and had a regular diet of religion.

The LDP’s aim was the salvation of these women’s souls through spiritual guidance and vocational training, as opposed to punishment or reproach.

The penitentiary regime was harsh, with girls wearing uniforms and working in silence. But it wasn’t as severe as workhouses or prisons, and the dropout rate at Park House was surprisingly low.

After their two-year reformation period girls were returned to their parents or went into service, while others married and lead respectable lives. Others opted to become lay sisters at the penitentiary, helping other girls but some went back to their past ways.

In 1866, it cost the LDP an annual average of £27 per head to keep each Highgate penitent fed, clothed and housed and public appeals from Mr Olivier and the Church Penitentiary Association for donations were frequent.

By 1877 the penitentiary had 60 inmates and the demand for such institutions was growing.

In a letter to The Standard in 1896, the association wrote that in 1856, Houses of Mercy in England totalled only nine. By 1896 it was 91, with more than 45,000 women and girls passing through the collective doors in that 40-year period.

The Highgate penitentiary was praised by charity commissioners for the results it achieved, and commended by the Pall Mall Gazette for “the excellent domestic training given to the women” that provided a calibre of housemaids and servants for which demand exceeded the supply.

Poet Christina Rossetti, an Anglican lay sister, was deeply involved in the penitentiary for 12 years.

Her contact with the women influenced her later poems about love and betrayal, and she regularly tried to secure work for reformed girls with her friends, as well as arranging fundraising events.

As a result of the Whitechapel murders of prostitutes in 1888, public attention was brought to the dangers faced by “unfortunates” plying their trade in the East End.

Their plight was raised by the Rev C.T. Ackland, of St Anne’s Church, Highgate, in his letter to The Times in October 1888 in an effort to appeal for funds to support the Highgate Penitentiary.

But what happened to Emma Jones, the girl listed on the 1861 census?

She died aged 12 and her body was first into a communal grave in Highgate Cemetery purchased by the London Diocesan Penitentiary in 1862.

No marker is visible and 10 others’ remains lie in the grave. These women and girls were not important enough to be named and shame followed them, even after death. But the occupants of the grave are no longer anonymous.

Emma Jones, 12, died 1862; Anna Williams, 15, 1869; Caroline Harriet Rhodes, 19, 1874; Emily Potter, 21, 1878; Harriet Smith, 17, 1880; Frances Iliffe, 14, 1881; Maude Clabby, 18, 1882; Rosetta Edwards, 20, 1900; Ada Rebecca Ingram, 40, 1907; and Agnes Ellis, 29, 1909.

Mr Olivier lies in his family vault in Highgate West Cemetery, as does Rossetti in her family plot.

Three of the penitentiary’s Sisters are interred in the cemetery.

The grave of the lost girls of the Highgate Penitentiary remains unmarked but not forgotten.

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