A home for the redemption of ‘fallen women’, Urania Cottage was co-founded by the writer Charles Dickens in Shepherd’s Bush on the then western outskirts of London in the late 1840s following an approach by Angela Burdett-Coutts, heiress to the Coutts banking fortune.
The home was founded as an alternative to existing institutions for such women – known for their “harsh and punishing” routines – and instead looked to provide an environment where they could learn skills, such as reading and writing, to help them successfully reintegrate into society (this would be overseas as all the women who spent time at the house were apparently required to emigrate following their time there).
The house selected was a detached property large enough to hold thirteen inmates and two superintendents in Lime Grove, Shepherd’s Bush. It opened in November 1847.
The term ‘fallen woman’ was used to describe a woman who has “lost her innocence”, and fallen from the grace of God. In the Victorian era the meaning came to be closely associated with expected convention of preserving a woman’s chastity until marriage. A woman’s fall could be for a number of reasons including pre-marital relationships also although included extra-marital affairs. Often these women were disowned from family and ended up in a life of poverty. Some turned to prostitution, whilst others were forced into this profession by economic circumstances or abuse that included Mothers forcing their daughters into the profession.
Charles Dickens was sympathetic to the circumstances of fallen women and featured a number in his novels including those who had succumbed to seduction (e.g. Little Emily in David Copperfield), those that had children out of wedlock (e.g. Lady Dedlock in Bleak House) and those that had turned to prostitution (e.g. Nancy in Oliver Twist).
Charles Dickens was instrumental in choosing fallen women who went into Urania Cottage. He wrote a pamphlet entitled An Appeal to Fallen Women to be handed out to women in prison who had been jailed because they had turned to prostitution or other crimes in the home they may want to voluntary apply for redemption.
In this home, which stands in a pleasant country lane and where each may have her little flower-garden if she pleases, they will be treated with the greatest kindness: will lead an active, cheerful, healthy life: will learn many things it is profitable and good to know, and being entirely removed from all who have any knowledge of their past career will begin life afresh and be able to win a good name and character.
Charles Dickens. An Appeal To Fallen Women.
After co-founding the home in Lime Grove, Charles Dickens became heavily involved in establishing the day-to-day running of Urania Cottage. If a woman showed an interest in entering the program, then Dickens would personally interview her before placing her in the house. Dickens was also involved in choosing staff and looking after the accounts.
It is estimated that 100 women graduated from the home between 1847 and 1859. After completing their time at Urania Cottage the women were generally made to emigrate to developing colonies such as Australia where they could begin a new life in the relative anonymity of any past misdemeanours.
Dickens’ involvement with Urania Cottage ended in 1858. Around this time he had been having an affair with a young actress, Ellen Ternan and he acrimoniously split from his wife, Catherine. It would seem that with his private life becoming a source of public scandal, Charles Dickens‘s friendship with Angela Burdett-Coutts was strained so much that ties were broken. Ironically, in having a relationship with Ellen Ternan, Dickens created his own fallen woman.
Urania Cottage has now long but disappeared, absorbed by the neighbouring film and later television studios at Lime Grove as they expanded.
From 1949 to 1991 the studio complex was used by the BBC. Lime Grove Studios closed in 1991, and was demolished in 1993. They were replaced by a housing estate which has streets named Gaumont Terrace and Gainsborough Court to reflect the past owners of Lime Grove Studios.
Further Reading on The Circumlocution Office.