Magdalene Asylums seem to have their earliest origins in the sixth century with EmpressTheodora’s convent, called Metanoia as an attempt to help victims of human traffickers who enslaved girls from poor families as sex workers. The historian Procopius wrote that over 500 women took refuge and repentance there during the life of the empress. Rebecca McCarthy’s book Origins of the Magdalene Laundries presents them as a continuation of a practice that had spread across Europe due to various economic and political factors. The London Magdalene Hospital was founded in 1758 and is considered the beginning of the “Magdalene revival” in the British Isles. In 1797 the Philanthropic Society of Edinburgh was opened with the goal of the re-socialization of former prisoners. It began small with just a couple of women placed in the care of volunteer families in Edinburgh, but it was quickly decided that it would be better to house them in a reformatory setting, the Edinburgh Magdalene Asylum. This way they could exercise more control over the women and they would receive religious education. In addition to this, there were at least four similar establishments in Edinburgh during the 1800’s providing aid, refuge, and reform to prostitutes and “fallen women”.
Thus, it seems that in Edinburgh there multiple options for “fallen women” who were seeking assistance in reintegrating into society. According to articles at the time, most women appeared at the doors of these establishments alone, so they were more likely seeking help voluntarily, not being forced by the courts or family. Thus, while some of the Magdalene Asylums were abusive, exploitative institutions in some cities there were more humane options available.
The full article Magdalene Establishments in nineteenth-century Edinburgh by Jowita A. Thor can be read at academia.edu .