In 1791, the London Chronicle reported the existence of a “remarkable” house of correction in Barcelona, which had been visited by Joseph Townsend four years earlier.
It had two aims: the reformation of prostitutes and female thieves (the two apparently interlinked or one and the same thing to many); and the second aim was “the correction of women who fail in their obligation to their husbands, and of those who either neglect or disgrace their families”.
The women held in this house of correction were fed bread and meat, paid for mainly through fines, but the women were expected to help fund their own meals by working “as long as they can see”.
They were able to earn five shillings a month, half of which was given to the Governor, and the other half was kept on their behalf until their term of confinement had expired – enabling them to walk out of the House of Correction with some funds behind them.
It was made clear that this punishment was a last resort, for these strong-minded women should ideally be “corrected” by their husbands, fathers, or other relatives. If they were unable to give a “severe” enough chastisement, then they could apply to the magistrate to confine them “for a term proportioned to their offences”.
The relative who sought their confinement would be made to contribute the equivalent of fourpence halfpenny a day for their maintenance, “and with this scanty provision they must be contented.”
The whole building was designed to maintain 500 women, suggesting that Barcelona had (or anticipated) something of a problem with independent women, although at the time of Townsend’s visit, there were only 113 women confined there.
These included, apparently, some rather fashionable ladies, whose families would tell concerned people that they were “visiting some distant friends”. One woman present was a rather well-to-do lady who had been accused both of being drunk and “imprudent in her conduct”.
Such women would receive “bodily correction, when it is judged necessary for their reformation,” a good whipping presumably being just the think for getting rid of any unfeminine thoughts.
This tale was regaled to the English newspaper reader as a strange act carried out by those odd foreigners; one can imagine the Daily Mail salivating over the tales of posh drunks, prostitutes and errant wives, being forced to learn appropriate behaviour from men.
Yet the English press appear to have failed to realise the similarities between this establishment and the gaols of its own land; the willingness of the English law to punish women deemed guilty of unfeminine or immoral acts; and the legality of whipping for women in England at this time.
It wrote about the strangeness of the law in Spain, without recognising the equal strangeness of the law at home.
Source: London Journal, 30 June-2 July 1791; “A Journey Through Spain in the Years 1786 and 1787” by Joseph Townsend (1791).