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Dublin had a terrible problem with sexual disease from the 1790s and onwards. And it was the Lock Hospital that struggled to help people.

The Westmoreland Lock Hospital for Incurables – or, to give it its official name, the Hospital of St Margaret of Cortona – was situated on Townsend Street. The Lock was founded in 1792 and was one of the few establishments catering for venereal disease. Initially, the hospital treated three hundred patients of both sexes. Later, its capacity was reduced to a hundred and fifty beds, and only women were admitted. Catholics and Protestants were segregated, while married women who had been infected by their husbands were kept away from common prostitutes. In 1794, the Lock Penitentiary opened for business. The penitentiary catered for women who had been discharged from the hospital. The women were, as Samuel Lewis put it in his Topographical Dictionary in 1837, ‘employed in needle- work and other female occupations’.


The Lock – which was once described as a ‘monument to moral degradation’ – was more like a prison than a hospital. It was a dreary, monotonous and depressing place. Patients were made to wear drab clothing lest they offend the sensibilities of the governors of the hospital. Explaining this policy, a witness to a government commission on Dublin hospitals said, ‘If we allowed these swell ladies from Mecklenburgh Street to flit about in pink wrappers and so on, it would be a distinct inducement to others less hardened to persevere in that life [prostitution] in the hope that probably they would arrive at similar distinction.’ During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, venereal disease was rampant in the city and it was estimated that in 1880 over a third of the five-thousand-strong Dublin garrison of the British army was infected with it. In 1881 a British commander complained that half the unmarried men in his regiment had succumbed to the disease. The situation got so bad at one stage that it led one commentator to suggest that prostitutes were doing a better job of weakening Ireland’s links with the British Empire than nationalists. Despite the obvious fact that prostitution was a huge industry in Dublin, the subject was rarely mentioned and the Lock was largely ignored by the public. At that time, many of Dublin’s hospitals were maintained by the myriad charities that were operating in the city. Because prostitution and venereal disease were such distasteful subjects, the Lock never received any charitable donations from these organisations. As a result, the hospital faced a constant struggle for survival. Its main source of income was from government grants: the British War Office contributed £1,100 for the years 1899 to 1906. There were few donations from the public. From 1901 to 1906, an average of seven pounds per year was raised, and from 1907 to 1913 the donations amounted to one pound per annum. The Lock was finally closed in the 1950s and the building was demolished.

This is an excerpt from the fascinating book called Rare Old Dublin: Heroes, Hawkers and Hoors by Frank Hopkins. Have a skim through its pages, you’ll lose yourself for hours!

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