They called it the Lock, and it was a fate worse than death

In 1879, seven-year-old Annie Ellen McGuire and nine-year-old Elisabeth Martin were taken from Glasgow’s Magdalene Asylum for "fallen women". They were sent to the Lock, the city’s venereal disease hospital, and they would never come out alive.

Over the next 30 years many more children entered the much-feared Lock, all to be treated for syphilis and gonorrhoea. Few survived the barbaric medical practices they suffered there, but 120 years later, the fate of Ellen and Elisabeth has revealed a shocking Victorian scandal.

Next week BBC Radio Scotland airs Dirty and Dangerous Women. Based on research by Anna Forrest, a Glaswegian librarian, it tells the story of the notorious VD hospital. Forrest used the lives and deaths of Annie and Elisabeth to get an insight into the hospital’s practices, but along the way she discovered a darker truth. The girls had not been infected at birth, as she had first assumed. They had been left at the Magdalene as foundlings. So how had they contracted syphilis?

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Delving further, she came across the "abominable superstition" - the belief that a person infected with a sexually transmitted disease can be cured by having sex with a young virgin. There seemed only one conclusion. The girls contracted the disease through sex with an adult and were condemned to a miserable death as a result. Those in authority were almost certainly complicit.

"These girls were not coming from deprived backgrounds or incestuous homes," says Forrest. "They were coming from an institution where they were supposed to be safe yet they landed in the Lock with VD. The only conclusion is that they were being used by the medical authorities."

They were not the only ones. She found that a dozen girls from the Magdalene alone entered the Lock in a ten-year period, and hundreds more girls were sent there in the years following.

Where they all came from Forrest is not sure, but she feels the evidence points to them having been abused as well.

The Lock was built to pander to the Victorian belief that women were to blame for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Its patients were the poorest and most desperate women and children in Glasgow, and for many of them winding up in the Lock was a fate worse than death. It is hard to believe that the physicians there were unaware of the truth about how many of their young patients became infected, although there was also a belief that syphilis could be caught from dirty sheets or shared clothing.

How many girls were "used" in this way is impossible to guess, says Forrest, but she is convinced by the way the records were made that the dreadful practice went on. It was just one of many awful practices carried out in the hospital.

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The Lock was built in 1846 at a time when venereal disease was at near epidemic proportions in Glasgow, and there was no cure. But the social mores of the time meant that when it was constructed in the city’s red light district it was made to look just like one of the surrounding tenements, rather than a hospital.

"When I found that out I just thought it was extremely sinister," says Forrest. "It was a hospital but it was built like a tenement because it was Glasgow’s shame.

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"Glasgow did not want such a place even though it ended up treating thousands of women every year. Thousands also ended up dying in the streets because they could not get into the wards - although their deaths would have been recorded as from TB or pulmonary thrombosis."

In its first 20 years women could only be treated in the Lock if they knew a subscriber - in other words if they were known prostitutes. "Without a subscriber, they were turned away even if they were dying," says Forrest.

By the 1860s so many women were dying that this rule had to be relaxed, and when VD was so rampant that it threatened to rage out of control, increasing numbers of children were admitted to the hospital.

Once inside, thousands more women died in excruciating pain in an institution more like a prison than a hospital. The conditions were horrendous, and some "cures" killed the women more quickly than the diseases themselves. In England, VD had become such a problem that House of Commons passed the Contagious Diseases Acts. "It was an attempt to try and regulate prostitutes as VD was becoming a huge problem in the navy and army, with whole regiments going down with the disease - it’s where the term ‘clapped out’ comes from," says Forrest.

With the health of the military being paramount, stringent laws came into force in England, which really were a form of licensed prostitution. If a woman agreed to be vaginally examined, a very painful process, and treated for VD she was allowed back on the streets with a certificate which had a stamp on it with Victoria’s head. These women were known as "Queen’s Women".

Scotland did not go down that road. Instead, it practised what became known as the Glasgow system, devised by Dr Alexander Patterson, the earnest chief physician of the Lock, and the city’s Chief Constable Alexander McCall.

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Their system was simply a means of social repression, actually harsher than the Contagious Diseases Acts, but they maintained it worked more effectively.

Patterson and McCall declared that VD was caused and spread by women and that it was essential to get infected females off the streets. If a woman was thought to be a prostitute - either by her demeanour or by her dress - she could be arrested on the spot and sent to Duke Street jail. To help round up "suspect women", McCall drafted in 150 special constables to visit the music halls and theatres of the city and measure the amount of flesh the female performers were showing. Too much, and they would be sent off for a vaginal examination to see if they were diseased.

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It wasn’t long before 64 of the special constables had applied for sick leave, and when examined found to be suffering from VD. But it was small wonder that the women would give anything to avoid Duke Street. If, after the examination, they were deemed to be infected, they were manacled and marched up to the Lock.

The only known treatment for syphilis at the time was mercury, which probably killed the women faster than the diseases themselves. It could be given orally but there was also a mercury bath in a sealed room in the basement. Raw mercury was heated to release vapours. The women sat above the bath with their sexual organs exposed so the mercury could burn out the infection. The vapours burned everything else as well, leading many to a speedy and painful death. They lost their noses and their teeth and produced a bucket of saliva every day as a result of the mercury. The smell of rotting flesh would have been pervasive.

If the women did survive the first and second stages of syphilis their end would have been no better. The third stage means madness and the women would have been transferred to the nearby asylum where they remained until they died. The Lock finally closed its doors in 1947. Its sordid history might have been forgotten if not for Forrest, who is also producing a play and a book about the hospital.

It was a chance remark that kindled her curiosity when she was working for the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow in 1994. There were five libraries in the building and one of them was called the Lock. When she asked why it had got its title a senior librarian told her it was named after the VD hospital.

"He said: ‘You don’t want to know about that,’ so naturally I immediately decided I did," laughs Forrest. She didn’t realise how much hard work it would entail.

"When I first started to look into it nobody seemed to know much about it. People had heard about it but there did not seem to be anything archived."

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Forrest’s great break came with a couple of books of accounts of the Lock found in a Glasgow bookshop. From there she managed to track down more information until she had a good history. There was only one more thing - a picture, and after more hunting she discovered that the Mitchell Library had a selection of photographs that looked promising. To her surprise the building that looked like a tenement turned out to be the one; the jigsaw was finally finished.

But for Forrest the story is far from over. Her own primary school was beside the site of the old Lock and she regularly played on the wasteland which remained when the building was demolished in 1955. "It’s almost as if I am haunted," she says. "I can see the women in my head, hear their voices."

Perhaps their ghosts called to her even then. At least now their voices are being heard.

BBC Radio Scotland’s Dirty and Dangerous Women will be broadcast on 10 February and 17 February at 11am.