Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Perth Ladies' House of Refuge for Destitute Girls

Image from 1864 OS Map showing Craigie and the House of Refuge
"That the object shall be to communicate the blessings of an Elementary Education, combined with Religious Instruction, to young Girls, whose parents, either from inability or want of will, have failed to give them such instruction."

This is the second statement in the Rules governing the running of the Perth Ladies Refuge for Destitute Girls.  An organisation that, historically, occupied  a large, stone built and crumbling building I used to pass on the way to school each day.  It always looked intriguing as a building and not a little spooky, given it's run down and haunted look but I never really thought of what it used to be until I later returned to Perth, the building had been levelled and a new Nursing Home built in it's place.  So here I am, in the Local Studies section of the AK Bell Library in Perth, finally getting some insight into what that building was.

The Perth Ladies Refuge for Destitute Girls was established in 1843 in flats in a house in Methven Street after a disagreement caused a rift between operators of the Female School of Industry based in the King James VI Hospital.  The flat was close to the Old Shore and when, in 1847, the construction of the Perth to Dundee railway caused this property to be demolished, land was gifted to them by Sir Thomas Moncrieffe at Craigie Knowes, over-looking Perth, and new buildings erected there to house the Refuge.  A generous donation by Sir Thomas but when the patron of the PLDG (full title too annoying!) was "The Most Noble The Marchioness of Breadalbane" I am sure there was some trade-off between the two powerful families who also probably backed the Free Church and their movement against State interference- after all, growing State control was a threat to the stranglehold enjoyed by Scottish Land Owners for generations.  It is worth noting at this point that the PLDG was entirely run by females with the exception of the treasurer who was always male - a typical exception!  The "disagreement" that led to the split from the Female Industrial School in 1843 ties in neatly with the Scottish "Disruption of 1843" when the established Church of Scotland suffered a rift and the setting up of the Free Church due to disagreement on State involvement in religious affairs.  Although it is not directly mentioned in their first yearly report, it is easy to guess this national religious rift was the ultimate cause of this local divergence when you consider the language employed when reporting the years activities:

"The mercy of God is infinite; he may, he does, frequently choose his own from among those whom the world rejects, and perhaps some of the inmates of the Refuge are among his chosen ones.  If this be the case, then, to those who, seeing the naked , clothed them, who, knowing them to be hungry, fed them, he may say at the final reckoning, IN AS MUCH AS YE DID IT UNTO THE LEAST OF THESE MY LITTLE ONES, YE DID IT UNTO ME." 
This is a small example of the language used throughout the early reports and very much reads like a sermon rather than an annual report to keep as little of "The State" involved.

Contributors and Patrons

 The Marchioness of Breadalbane was the Refuge's Patron and biggest contributor (her husband, the Marquis contributed in it's first year of running but appeared to lose interest after that!) and the second annual report, though being careful to stress that going out of business is not possible (probably with their rivals in mind and to losing face!), take the opportunity to implore the Christian citizens of Perth to dig deep.  The running cost of rescuing the girls (approximately 15 at this time) is listed as being "at least £130" but reminds the God fearing population of Perth of the following scenario:-

"The culprit for whose benefit these men [jury] were compelled to leave their occupations, was a boy about thirteen years of age, accused of the crime of stealing a brass candlestick, worth six-pence; and the expense of his trial to the country, and the individuals concerned in it , was estimated at £100 sterling.  Nine months later the same gentleman was again summoned, in the same capacity, to attend the supreme criminal court , and again, amidst the imposing solemnities of justice, there being no fewer than three judges on the Bench, with their accompanying staff of officers of court, besides an array of sheriffs, advocates, agents and jurymen, the same little boy was again brought forward, charged with the same crime, and this time the estimated expense of his trial was upwards of £300 Sterling!"
This is a convenient example to lay before the fine Christian population of Perth and ties neatly in with their own age limits on girls attending being no younger than 10 and no older than 14.  The message is obviously one of, "how can you begrudge this fine establishment it's running costs to save the souls of 15 young girls when that could cost you three times as much if left to sin!"  Interestingly, "The City of Perth" appears as a contributor in 1846, matching the £10 contribution of the Marchioness.  Whether this is a way for the State to keep in with the Free Church, genuine concern or quiet manipulation of the Refuge is hard to tell however, later occurrences lead me to believe that the City of Perth knows a good thing when it sees it.

Subtle Change of Direction (Mission creep?)

With a large new building at Craigie Knowes,  successes of girls being placed in positions from Edinburgh to Dundee and favourable reports of their conduct (though reading some of the quotes makes the girls sound more like pets than human beings- subservient, docile, religious lady's maids!) I am of the opinion that the City of Perth finally managed to influence change at the Refuge.  In the report for the year 1847-48, the Refuge has doubled it's intake and, for the first time, taken on day girls.  The mantra thus far had been to separate girls entirely from their parents so as to remove the evil influence forcing them towards drunkenness, prostitution and crime and therefore meant the girls could not leave the Refuge without prior permission of the Matron.  The argument that the girls' good teachings would influence the evil parents are considered but roundly rejected as they believe, probably correctly, that releasing the girls back into homes of drunkenness, prostitution, degradation and ill repute would undo any good work as the bad parent will soon insist the girl returns to her previous ways to support the household.  However, in 1847, the Refuge acknowledges that there are children out there whose parents are not necessarily evil but, well, just poor!

"Between the parents of this class, and that already alluded to, there is an obvious similarity and a marked distinction.  The similarity is that of circumstances, the distinction is that of character.  Both are wretchedly poor, but both are not depraved.  The one class, instead of endeavouring to to keep their children right, rather urge them forward to the commission of sin; the other is desirous that their children should do well- the one is reckless of even outward decency, the other would fain to be honest- the one class is composed of the thief, the drunkard, and the prostitute, the other of the debilitated mechanic, the destitute widow, and the forsaken wife."
The Refuge still keenly reiterate their founding principle of rescuing girls from evil parents and maintain that is their primary goal but from here on in, the Refuge appears to be on the slippery slope (in their eyes) to becoming a mainstream establishment and the number of girls in their care continues to rise.

1872 Education (Scotland) Act

If the City of Perth making contributions to the running of the Refuge was a local level influence on the running of the school then the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act was a National game changer for them.  If you accept, which I do, the Refuge having been established based on religions differences with the State over religious education and moral issues then this was a knife at the heart of their founding principles.  The book I have used as reference "Perth Ladies' House of Refuge for Destitute Girls- Annual Reports 1845-1914" has a large gap between 1847 and 1873 although other annual reports are available online outwith this collection.  It does show the difference the act has made however in that the two reports, 1847 and 1873, read completely differently.  By 1873 the sermons on sin, the comparison of running costs to the costs of trials of children and lamenting how much was spent on alcohol in Perth (£50,000 in 1847!) are gone.  In their place we now have inspectors reports, attendance figures, money in and out in greater detail and very little reference to religion other than thanking the Free West Church for continuing to take the schools children into their congregation on the Sabbath.  More tellingly, the school now receives a consideration from the state for all girls Committed into their care under a Magistrates Warrant.  In 1873 the attendance numbers were as follows:

Number of children in the House at 31st December 1872  -  60
Admitted during the year - 12
Total - 72
Sent to Service - 4
Emigrated to New Zealand- 2
Returned to friends - 2

Number in House at 31st December 1873  - 64 
 A breakdown of these figures is then given showing that of the 64 girls in their care, only 12 are willingly there and a weighty 52 have been committed to their care under Magistrates Warrants.  It's a stark difference to previous reports and I will endeavour to see if I can find any of the missing reports online to see if there was a particular event that shifted the focus of the Refuge so drastically but it may well be a gradual eroding of their initial goal as the realities of a modernising society take hold.


The Perth Ladies' House of Refuge for Destitute Girls finally closed in 1922 and I suppose the intervening 65 years till I started walking past it's brooding and ramshackle shell were not kind to it.  I don't have any clear memories of what the building and grounds looked like and I regret not having any photographic record of it- that's just me as a hoarder of information.  Until I read some of the annual reports today, I had no idea it represented so much about the changing face of Perth, it's society (both religious and civic) and the spread of occupation fuelled by new industries and transport links.  I found mention in the Card Index of the library of the sale notice for the building for "...institutional use or erection of dwelling places."  With buildings and gardens, it covered 1 and 1/4 acres and indeed, in some of the earlier annual reports the gardens are often mentioned in the "training" of the girls.  The sum asked was £2,500 and was advertised in the 1924 May 7 edition of the Perthshire Advertiser- unfortunately, the May 10 edition reports the premises attracted no interest at all.  From my, no means exhaustive, research this afternoon, it looks like the building did sadly just decay and was put to no use until it was demolished.  Now just another Perth memory however, at the last moment I found this image in a Canadian photographic collection that is free of copyright - it really was as big as I remember it!

1909- Perth Ladies' Refuge for Destitute Girls latterly known as Craigie Industrial School (top right of picture)


  1. Welcome to the GeneaBloggers family. Hope you find the association fruitful; I sure do. I have found it most stimulating, especially some of the Daily Themes.

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    Dr. Bill ;-)
    Author of "13 Ways to Tell Your Ancestor Stories" and family saga novels:
    "Back to the Homeplace" and "The Homeplace Revisited"

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    a.k.a “DearMYRTLE’s daughter

  3. Many thanks for your comments.. much appreciated. Am glad to be a part of the Geneabloggers family!

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