Mrs Pumphrey’s Key

Susan Woodall is currently studying for a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is researching the relationship between the material setting and the reform methodology of institutions for ‘fallen’ women in nineteenth-century England. Her particular interest is in the interaction between the material culture of the locus of reform and the reform process experienced by the inmates.

woodall, key cropped

Set alongside recent stars of the Emotional Objects blog such as the pap boat, the family mourning ring and the Native American birch box, this unremarkable mid-nineteenth-century key is unlikely to shine. It boasts no precious metal, fine engraving or stitching, its only embellishment is rust. Made to perform a single mechanical function, at first sight it seems inert and devoid of emotional meaning. Releasing the ‘emotional charge’ of this object relies on understanding the ‘very specific circumstances’ of its use.[i]

Whose key was it?

The key is preserved in the Tyne and Wear Archives in what is probably its original envelope, with the Newcastle business address of grocer, tea and coffee merchant Thomas Pumphrey, embossed on the envelope flap. [ii]

Both Thomas and his wife Emma Pumphrey served on committees associated with the Brandling Place Home for ‘fallen women’, established in Newcastle in 1861. Around 58 such institutions were already functioning by 1860 across England, Scotland and Ireland.[iii] From the late 1870s, Emma was active on the Ladies’ Committee, attending monthly meetings at the Home premises and visiting regularly in between. Given the nature of the Home, and assuming that the envelope belonged to the Pumphreys, we can make a reasonable case that this key would have belonged to Emma.

Who were ‘fallen’ women?

Typically aged between 16 and 25, they were young women mostly from ‘the labouring classes’, who had had some form of sexual experience outside marriage. Whether working as prostitutes by choice or through economic necessity, ‘seduced’ or subjected to other sexual exploitation, they were judged by the attitudes of the time to have lost moral and social respectability.

What were these ‘Homes’?

From the mid eighteenth century, in an attempt to address rising rates of prostitution and to ‘rescue’ those women leading or in danger of leading ‘a life of vice’, residential reform institutions were established by local philanthropists and supported by charitable donation. Women admitted spent around two years in a gruelling programme of moral and religious education, commercial sewing, and laundry work. At the end of the two years they received a character reference and were placed by the institution in respectable domestic service ‘to begin a new life’. [iv]

How did women get into institutions like the Brandling Place Home?

Sometimes they were sent by a magistrate as an alternative to prison or brought (more or less willingly), by a street missionary into ‘safety’. Sometimes accompanied by a friend or family member or simply presenting themselves alone, whatever their route, women arrived at the doors of these institutions often anxious, frightened, resentful, desperate or relieved.

Locking out and locking in

Although often prison-like in discipline, with residents referred to as ‘inmates’, these institutions were not technically prisons. Women could leave by negotiation, but attempts would be made to dissuade them, as in most institutions re-entry was not usually possible. Some women succeeded in talking their way out, some just co-operated and kept their heads down. Others could not wait and incidents of running away were common. Locks were the chief means of keeping inmates in: keys that could let them out were therefore powerful objects and needed careful stewardship.

At the Brandling Place Home, the Ladies’ Committee operated a system of Superintendents: senior inmates who could be trusted to keep the key of the gate into the Home premises in the Matron’s absence.

 Getting out

The vigilance of staff varied between institutions. At the Cambridge Female Refuge early one morning in January 1850, T and two other inmates stole a key from under the Matron’s nose. Disappointed at not getting a situation after nearly two years,

T called at Matron’s bedroom when they were getting up and asked for a light to dress by, as they could not see. In doing this she took away the key of the Tradesman’s door from Matron’s room where it was lying. After which she and the other two hastily dressing themselves, absconded by means of the key thus stolen. When Matron discovered the loss of the key, she anxiously went down to see the door, and found the lighted candle there.[v]

Even without keys, resourceful inmates could get past locks. In her diary of visits to the Brandling Place Home, the Secretary of the Ladies’ Committee records that on 8th April 1895, two inmates had absconded having ‘picked the lock of an outer door’.[vi]

More daring were two women at the Lincoln Female Penitents’ Home, who had been secretly corresponding with two young men. In July 1905, while the rest of the household slept:

Ethel P. had, during the dinner hour, taken a duplicate key from the large laundry bunch & having persuaded the early girl to un-latch the door, after the workers had gone to bed, together with another girl came down stairs & let the two young men into the garden, they were together until about 11.15 p.m. … The missing key was found in the copper fire…

This time the inmates used the key not to get out, but to let male visitors in.

More disturbing is the case of W, admitted into the Cambridge Female Refuge in March 1846. Her case history reveals the cause of her ‘fall’:

‘a young man met me as I was going from Paxton to St Neots – forced me into a field – I struggled with him & shrieked but no one came to my aid’.

Admitted on probation on 24th February, W was restless and on 24th March had ‘been attacked with violent hysterics…so great as to occasion personal injury to herself’. She continued to have sleepless and violent nights over many weeks and the Ladies’ Committee reported that her behaviour was beginning to affect the other inmates. W’s sister was asked to take her in and W left the Refuge on 22nd April 1846. The minutes of 16th August record the following incident:

Some of the Inmates hearing a loud and frequent knocking at the garden door and their names called – went at last to ask who it was – when W said she wanted to know how they all did & crying a great deal added she had broken her arm & longed to be within those walls again.[vii]

What had happened to W from the time she left the Refuge for her sister’s is unclear, but her distress suggests that life outside was hard. Despite her difficulties in the Refuge, she regretted not being inside.

W’s case reminds us of that women experienced these Homes differently. Today, the very idea of these institutions is inexcusable, made worse by the exclusive focus on reforming female and not male moral behaviour. It’s worth considering though that at a time when the only form of statutory welfare support was the workhouse, at the very least these institutions provided women with board and lodging and some form of preparation for work in domestic service.

As a material survival from one of these lost institutions, Mrs Pumphrey’s key is rare, and my own excitement at opening the envelope and handling this very ordinary object was doubtless baffling to the patient archivist who fetched it for me. Initially unpromising, our emotional response to this object relies on understanding the purpose of the institution it secured and the different experiences of the women it confined. For W, demanding though life in the Cambridge Refuge was, it gave her a few months’ respite and the companionship of other women. For T, the key she took meant well-deserved freedom after a long two years and the chance to regain control over her own life.


[i] John Styles, Keynote: ‘Objects and Emotions: The London Foundling Hospital Tokens, 1741-1760’, Emotional Objects: Touching Emotions, Conference , Institute of Historical Research, 11 November, 2013.

[ii] Tyne and Wear Archives, CHX13/19

[iii] The Magdalene’s Friend and Female Homes Intelligencer, No.3 June and No.4 July, 1860

[iv] Tyne and Wear Archives, CHX13/11

[v] Cambridgeshire Archives, R60/27/1

[vi] Tyne and Wear Archives, CHX13/3

[vii] Cambridgeshire Archives, R60/27/1

I am very grateful to Tyne and Wear Archives and Cambridgeshire Archives for permission to use the image.



  1. What a fascinating angle of discussion, thank you Ms. Woodall for this clear and elucidating post.

  2. […] featured post from this blog for the Carnival is by Susan Woodall and has the unassuming title of Mrs Pumphrey’s Key.  The key itself is unexceptional – Susan evocatively describes an “unremarkable […]

  3. Susan Beaumont · · Reply

    The Quakers were not the only group, but they were one of the most respected, to establish refuges for fallen women. I would argue that such institutions have much to reveal about Victorian men’s attitudes and double standards: especially that they subscribed money to such institutions to assuage their consciences, as Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and many others did, men who never felt it necessary to explain why they abandoned their wives and families for the ‘other’ women. They did very little to challenge widespread condemnation not just of fallen women but also women who were persecuted for the same ‘crime’ (read Lady Worsley’s Whim and Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace for two accounts). Orphan Foundlings were born to live unhappy lives unaware of their origins, as Quaker, Robert Barclay observed. Each of their identifiers, or tokens, tell a tragic story. all were renamed to conceal those origins.

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