“I hated being sent to collect me mum’s washing from the Kelton laundry. With a kid’s imagination it looked like Dracula’ s castle or maybe Colditz to my young eyes. You would knock on a huge door which was duly opened by a fearsome looking nun in full habit. Peering in as she went to fetch the wash, revealed a scene I thought was what hell must look like. A horrible smell of cleaning and lots of steam. Lines of women in pinafores and covered heads slaving away. A vacant expression of hopelessness on every face. I sensed evil even at my tender age.
The evil that was the Magdalene story”.
Phil Jones, October 2017
This comment turned up in my email early one Saturday in October 2017 about a blog post I’d written nearly four years earlier in December 2013. That post had been about a general walk around Aigburth in South Liverpool that had ended with me finding somewhere I’d almost forgotten from earlier in my life.
“Let me tell you a story, a true story, from half my lifetime ago.
It’s the mid 1980s and I’m delivering my beloved baby daughter to her nursery. It’s called Kelton and is just down the hill from a convent, called Kelton House. This morning I’ve noticed someone watching me as I drive past Kelton House. Someone who doesn’t look much like a nun. I ask one of the women who work in the nursery, an Irish woman as it happens ‘What is that place up there? I thought it was a convent.’ ‘Well it is’ she says ‘But it’s also a mother and baby home. It’s where the girls come to have their babies, off the Irish boats as often as not.’
So hurtful for them. Us bringing our much wanted and much celebrated babies to the nursery each morning, while they watch us from their hidden away lives.
I wasn’t sorry, then, when the nursery had to move to another place a few months later because the nuns, who owned the land, had decided to sell it off for housing.”
Four years ago I’d been astonished to find the old house still there, waiting, maybe, to be turned into apartments one day. So I went away and dug a little deeper into what might have happened at Kelton House.
I didn’t find very much at first. Someone has been inside and photographed it. An abandoned convent.
Then Twitter and searching around brought me more. It definitely had been a home for unmarried mothers. Someone’s birth mother and sisters:
“Stayed for a few years in Kelton, and the children were placed via the Catholic Adoption Society now known as Nugents.”
Then someone on a genealogy site founds this from the 1911 census:
“Just found my Gran and Mum on the 1911 census at Kelton Convent, House for Penitents and children, Woodlands Road, Aigburth. Gran was stated as being an inmate and working as a laundry assistant (attached to home). Gran was 22 and Mum was 3 years old.
Matching these findings with my own memories I felt uneasy. Yes, times were different and we can barely imagine how it was for families and daughters back then. But the words I’d now heard – ‘House for Penitents’ and ‘working as a laundry assistant’ reminded me of so much that had emerged in Ireland in recent years. Of what happened to daughters who were sent away, either to have their babies, or as Joni Mitchell says in her song about such places:
“For the way men looked at me”
So, I’d wondered, had we perhaps had our own version of a Magdalene Laundry hidden behind a high wall here in Liverpool?
Since then the blog post has continued to be well read, perhaps because it also contains the story of Liverpool’s last zoo, once round the corner from Kelton. But a constant theme of subsequent contacts was Kelton and what might have gone on there?
“I had forgotten about Kelton House . It reminded me that not too long ago there were14 institutions housing children (that I can count) in South Liverpool. Hidden in plain sight.”
“I was born there in 1967 and adopted the following year without ever being told about it by my adoptive parents.”
“Where I started.”
And of course this morning, in October 2017, this straightforward eye witness memory:
“I hated being sent to collect me mum’s washing from the Kelton laundry. With a kid’s imagination it looked like Dracula’ s castle or maybe Colditz to my young eyes. You would knock on a huge door which was duly opened by a fearsome looking nun in full habit. Peering in as she went to fetch the wash, revealed a scene I thought was what hell must look like. A horrible smell of cleaning and lots of steam. Lines of women in pinafores and covered heads slaving away. A vacant expression of hopelessness on every face. I sensed evil even at my tender age.”
This sounds truly awful, though we’re some way from the levels of documented evidence that’s been emerging around the world and particularly in Ireland over recent decades. Still I do now suspect that, a couple of miles off the Irish boats, we housed a Magdalene Laundry of our own here in Liverpool.
So? I think it’s not ok to accept excuses like that ‘times were different then’ I mentioned earlier. Some things are just wrong and always were. And if I’m wrong about this place then I’ll be glad to be wrong. But let’s find out what happened. And if we can’t put it all right for all the young women and their babies so exploited and mistreated, than at leat let’s get it straight, so we remember and record it and so such a place never happens again, here in our Liverpool.
Over the same weekend as the email quoted at the beginning of this post evidence, memories and opinions began coming in, particularly filling my timeline on Twitter. Here are just some:
- “She had seen nuns shouting and hitting workers, years later nothing had changed”
- A list of Magdalen Homes containing Kelton and 30 others in Liverpool. ‘Must remain a year’
- What became Kelton ‘House of Providence’ founded by Fr James Nugent in 1897 to ‘check infanticide’
- Also much other interest, memories and potential evidence coming through Twitter since publication on Saturday 7th October 2017
- “That’s chilling. We lived near there and mother used to have the laundry done by nuns who would deliver it to the house. But it wasn’t the nuns who washed it”
- “Was this aka the House of Providence? If so, Belchem (in Irish, Catholic, Scouse…) mentions it in context of Nugent’s work.”
- Thanks. We need to preserve the history that makes us uncomfortable as much as that which we can celebrate.”
- “Try the Liverpool Catholic archives first? I’ll ask next time I’m in.”
- “To be honest, as an adoptee who’s birth mum has Kelton as her place of residence, I believe part of the problem is the adoption agencies”
- “The priority was hiding those women who didn’t fit the mould of acceptability. I suspect record-keeping & future reunions weren’t considered.”
- “My friend lived in the area from a small child more than 70 years ago, she had to go to Kelton to collect Laundry for neighbours. She told me of how she had seen nuns shouting and hitting workers, everyone was sad, she thought it was a normal way of life for those people as times were hard for everyone, but years later she went to work there until the nuns sold it off, to look after children and nothing had changed, she said it was a terrible way to live for them mums.”
At Kelton the planned apartments are now on site.