Denny, Arbella (1707–1792)

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Denny, Arbella (1707–1792)

Irish philanthropist who initiated the reform of the Dublin Foundling Hospital and founded the first Magdalen Asylum, or home for penitent prostitutes. Name variations: Arabella; Lady Arbella Denny. Born Arbella Fitzmaurice in Ireland in 1707; died in Dublin on March 18, 1792 (some sources incorrectly cite 1785); daughter of Thomas Fitzmaurice, 1st Earl of Kerry, and Anne (Petty) Fitzmaurice, countess of Kerry; married Arthur Denny of Tralee, on August 26, 1727 (died 1742); no children.

Undertook the reform and improvement of the Dublin Foundling Hospital (1759) and continued to be associated with it until 1778; member of the Ladies' Committee of the Dublin Lying-in Hospital (1760); received thanks from the Irish House of Commons for her work at the Foundling Hospital (1764); awarded freedom of the City of Dublin (1765); elected honorary member of the Dublin Society (1766); founded the Magdalen Asylum in Leeson Street, Dublin (1767) and supervised its management until her retirement (1790).

In 1767, a pamphlet announcing a plan for a new type of charitable institution was published in Dublin. Voicing a currently widespread concern about the extent and effects of prostitution, the anonymous author of the Letter to the public on an important subject called for the foundation of "an infirmary for wounded consciences, an asylum for penitent females, early seduced from the paths of virtue … but now willing, nay, eager to return to their duties to God, themselves, and the community." In place of the "diseases, poverty and brutal insults" to which prostitutes were subject, inmates would "be lodged, boarded and clothed in a decent, becoming and comfortable manner, carefully and conscientiously instructed in the principles of true religion, and powerfully assisted in their virtuous resolutions." A fund had already been set up for the establishment of such a house and support for the venture was sought from all concerned citizens, but particularly from "the ladies of this kingdom … who, with compassion equal to their own superior virtue, will certainly patronize an undertaking designed to restore many fallen and unhappy persons of their sex to chastity, decency and competence. The influence of such examples cannot fail to be universal." On June 9, 1767, a general meeting of supporters of the new charity was held, and two days later, on June 11, the Magdalen Asylum opened in Leeson Street in Dublin under the direction of Lady Arbella Denny.

Although Lady Arbella's name quickly became synonymous with that of the asylum, this was by no means her first involvement in the field of philanthropy. She had already won fame for her interest in improvement and reform, had been awarded the freedom of the city of Dublin, and had been formally thanked by the Irish House of Commons for her "extraordinary bounty and charity," which went far beyond the conventional good works in which aristocratic and leisured ladies commonly engaged. Her philanthropy was innovative as well as energetic: the Magdalen Asylum was the first institution of its kind, as well as the first charity founded and run by women for women in Ireland. As the "protec-tress of helpless infancy and penitent frailty," that is, of foundling children and of "fallen women," Denny addressed herself to sectors of society whose needs had previously been disregarded and, by demonstrating the capacity of women to carry on such work and by encouraging members of her own sex to follow her example, paved the way for greater involvement by women in public life.

[Lady Arbella Denny's] kindness, patience, and perseverance, which surmounted obstacles that would have appalled a more ordinary mind, cannot be recollected without admiration.

—Biographia Hibernica

Lady Arbella, born in 1707, was the fourth of five children of Lord and Lady Kerry. Thomas Fitzmaurice, her father, owned vast tracts of land in the remote and beautiful southwest corner of Ireland, and Arbella's childhood was probably spent at the family seat of Lixnaw, near Tralee, where the Fitzmaurices, lords of Kerry since the 12th century, lived in considerable splendor: Charles Smith, visiting Lixnaw in 1756, described its magnificent gardens and a private chapel, its walls covered by frescoes copied from Raphael. Despite her privileged upbringing, however, the young Arbella could hardly fail to be aware of the tensions within her family background. Her father was described by his grandson as an "obstinate and inflexible" man, poorly educated, an "excessive bad husband" and a despot who tyrannized over the surrounding countryside as well as over his own household and family. "In consequence, his children did not love him, but dreaded him." Anne Fitzmaurice , Lady Kerry, on the other hand, was a woman of "superior understanding, address and temper" and of "an ambitious, active disposition." She was the only daughter and favorite child of Sir William Petty, the scientist and diplomat, and, under his supervision, had received an unusually broad education. A friend of Jonathan Swift, who commended her wit and intelligence, she was also a shrewd businesswoman who, according to her grandson, brought into the family "whatever degree of sense may have appeared in it, or whatever wealth is likely to remain in it." It was clearly with the maternal side of her heritage that Lady Arbella most closely identified. From her mother, she inherited an interest in science and the arts as well as energy and a zeal for improvement, and she is on record as having declared herself "prouder of my grandfather Petty's struggles, and industry, and success in life, than of all the honours of the House of Lixnaw."

In 1727, at the age of 20, Arbella married a neighboring landowner, Colonel Arthur Denny, "a very good sort of man" but "uninformed and ignorant." The Dennys' marriage was childless, and for that reason, perhaps, a close and enduring relationship developed between Lady Arbella and her nephew, William Fitzmaurice, later Lord Shelburne, who, having been virtually abandoned by his parents, spent the first four years of his life in his grandfather's house at Lixnaw. In a fragment of autobiography, written many years later, Shelburne recorded the love and "unspeakable gratitude" that he owed to his aunt for her tenderness at that time, and noted her influence on him. "She was," he wrote, "the only example I had before me of the two qualities of mind which most adorn and dignify life—amiability and independence"; she impressed upon him the necessity of "order" in all things; above all, "she inculcated into me a sense of duty towards God, the public, and my neighbours." The bond between Lady Arbella and her nephew remained strong, and in later life, Lord Shelburne, a leading politician and prime minister in 1782–83, was able to repay his aunt's devotion by promoting and financially supporting some of her benevolent enterprises.

In 1742, Colonel Denny died. His estate passed to his brother, leaving Lady Arbella with "comparatively small means for her rank in life." Nevertheless, she is reported to have refused several offers of marriage, having acquired, so she said, "too much experience ever to become a slave again," and instead took advantage of the opportunity offered by widowhood to pursue her own inclinations and concerns. In 1745, she moved to Dublin, where she was to live for the rest of her life, creating around her house at Blackrock a garden, which John Wesley, who visited her there in 1783, described as "one of the pleasantest spots I ever saw." She became a noted hostess and a leading figure in Dublin society, traveled in Ireland and England and in 1751 made a tour of Europe where she was entertained at a number of princely courts.

She also acquired a reputation for benevolence and was active in a variety of schemes to relieve need and to improve the living and working conditions of the Irish poor. As a young woman, she had engaged in the type of private charities appropriate to her station as the daughter and wife of local landowners, establishing, for instance, "a little apothecary's shop … for the benefit of the poor" at Lixnaw. In Dublin, where there was widespread concern about the incidence of poverty and the impact of urbanization, she involved herself in a wide range of initiatives. She was, for instance, a member of the Ladies' Committee of the recently founded Dublin Lying-in Hospital and was a keen supporter of the work of the Dublin Society, founded in 1731 to encourage Irish manufactures and agriculture. Projects that she promoted included the development of a stove "for drying … codfish without the heat of the sun," the export of Irish cheeses, and the cultivation of madder and of flax. She had a particular interest in the welfare of the Irish textile industry, submitting memoranda on such subjects as the production of linen damask and of woollen and worsted goods, and with a number of other aristocratic ladies was appointed patron of the "public warehouse" established by the Society to promote Irish silk manufacture; in pursuit of the same end, she planted mulberry trees and bred silkworms in her garden at Blackrock. In 1766, the Dublin Society, in recognition of her contribution, elected her as its first honorary, as well as its first female, member, and in 1788 it recorded its thanks to her for "her constancy in creating employment and alleviating poverty and distress" to which, "through the Society and in other ways, she had given her life." Among these "other ways" was certainly included Lady Arbella's involvement with the Dublin Foundling Hospital which, beginning in 1759 when she was already over 50, was to bring her to public prominence as a philanthropist and reformer, and present her with a challenge which, as an early biography in Biographia Hibernica remarked, "would have appalled a more ordinary mind."

Denny's intervention in the affairs of the Foundling Hospital is in hindsight, perhaps, less surprising than the fact that in the first half century of its existence she was the only individual to show any genuine and sustained will to deal with conditions there. Founded in 1730 by Act of Parliament to address the practices, largely arising from poverty, of infanticide and child abandonment, the hospital from the beginning gave cause for concern. Although it had been established as a department of the Dublin Work-house, the hospital was, in fact, a national institution, accepting abandoned children from all over Ireland and even from Britain. During its first year, 165 infants were admitted; thereafter, numbers rose sharply, and by 1757 the hospital had 2,069 children in its care. The heavy demands made on its facilities were compounded by insufficient funding and by lax management procedures. The governors met only rarely, irregularities and embezzlement were common, discipline was strict and often brutal, care was inadequate, and mortality rates among the children were extremely high: of 4,025 admissions in the period 1730–37, for instance, at least 3,235 died, from a range of causes that included "cold, hunger, lying in the streets, scrofulous or other disease" and, in the case of babies brought from the countryside, their sufferings on the journey. While older children were kept in the hospital, babies under two were given out into the care of foster mothers. Many were subsequently reported to have died, some were believed to have been murdered by their nurses and others simply disappeared, with the hospital authorities apparently making little effort to ascertain their fate.

In 1757, the House of Commons was sufficiently concerned to appoint a committee to enquire into the state and management of the institution. Its report was an appalling catalogue of mismanagement, neglect, and active cruelty. The diet, clothing and accommodation of the foundlings were found to be wretched. The dormitories were damp with broken windows; because of the conditions and the shortage of nurses to care for them, "the children have been frequently almost eaten up with vermin and uncleanness." Those who complained about the conditions "have been put into the cells of Bedlam, where mad people are kept, and continued there for days, weeks and months, some put into the same cells with mad men, and others most severely corrected and whipped."

It was almost certainly the revelations contained in this report that prompted Lady Arbella to concern herself in the hospital's affairs. According to Biographia Hibernica:

She promptly stepped forward and proposed … that it should be visited by some ladies of consequence, in rotation, rightly judging that the wants of young children, the negligence of nurses, and the general management of such an institution, fell more within their sphere of observation than of any gentlemen, however wise or discerning they might be.

Such a committee was established shortly afterwards but, while the other ladies involved soon lost interest, Denny persevered in her initiative. For 20 years, she visited the hospital several times weekly, engaged extra nurses to whom she offered incentives to encourage greater care of their charges, reorganized the nursery and infirmary, and supervised the enlargement and improvement of the hospital premises. Much of this she funded herself, spending in all over £4,000 of her own and her friends' money on the project. Few details of the institution's routine escaped her attention. It was recorded, for instance, that she installed a clock in the nursery, "to mark, that as children reared by the spoon, must have but a small quantity of food at a time, it must be offered frequently; for which purpose this clock strikes every twenty minutes, at which notice, all the infants that are not asleep, must be discreetly fed." She also made use of her association with the Dublin Society to foster the manufacture of bone lace by the foundlings, thereby providing them with a skill as well as with a small income. The lace so produced was sold at her request in the Society's warehouse, and its records for the period 1764–77 chronicle a number of payments to her for distribution as prizes among the children.

Lady Arbella's efforts were reflected in a marked improvement in conditions at the hospital and in a decline in the death rate, from over 50% of the total admitted 1750–60 to under 25% of those received in the period 1760–70. A 1764 House of Commons report noted that the children in the nursery "were found to be usefully employed and carefully educated … well fed, clothed and in general healthy," while "by the extraordinary care of the nurses in the workhouse, excited by premiums given by the Right Honourable Lady Arbella Denny … many of their lives have been saved." In the following year, she received the freedom of the city of Dublin "as a mark of … esteem for her many great charities and constant care of the poor foundling children in the City Workhouse," and in 1778, when old age forced her to retire, the governors of the workhouse offered her their "sincere and grateful acknowledgement" of her work, which had been "the means of saving the lives of many innocents."

Despite these plaudits, however, Denny's initiatives received no legislative support and produced no fundamental reform in the organization or supervision of the hospital. The improvements that she introduced vanished with her departure, and in 1788 a report to the House of Commons noted the need for more "cleanliness and order" and the detrimental effects "of the loss of Lady Arbella Denny's visits." The short-lived nature of the reforms that she had introduced illustrate the constraints on women's potential for action. Forced to work within existing structures and dependent on the cooperation and goodwill of bodies and individuals who demonstrated little evidence of concern or will to reform, her achievement could only be a personal, and thus a temporary, one. The decision to establish her own charity may well have been prompted by frustration at these restrictions, as well as by an awareness, gained in the course of her association with the Foundling Hospital, of the necessity for a refuge "for unfortunate females … willing to prefer a life of penitence and virtue to one of guilt, infamy and prostitution." Such a home had been opened in London a few years before, providing a model for the new institution. However, a novel feature of the Dublin enterprise, one that set it apart from other charities in both Britain and Ireland and became the pattern for a new type of female philanthropy, was the major role played by women in its affairs.

The Magdalen Asylum opened its doors at Leeson Street in Dublin on June 11, 1767, and received its first inmate shortly afterwards; 11 penitents were admitted during the first year, and by 1795 a total of 388 applicants had entered the house. The charity was financed by subscriptions and donations and by the weekly collections and the proceeds of the annual charity sermon at its own chapel, which, as one of Dublin's most popular places of worship, attracted aristocratic and affluent congregations and fashionable preachers. A committee of "governesses," elected from the lady subscribers, was appointed to visit the house regularly and to oversee the welfare, instruction, and training of inmates, but the principal authority was Lady Arbella, who, assisted by her deputy, Mrs. Usher , was closely involved in every aspect of the charity's affairs. Lady Arbella was also responsible for drawing up the comprehensive and detailed regulations under which the house operated, and which showed a characteristic concern for order and for the proper use of time. The day, which began at six in summer and seven in winter and ended at ten o'clock at night, was to be passed in "private devotions," meditation and prayer, housework and other employments, such as reading and needlework. Even the duration of meals was stipulated, the time to be measured by an hour glass placed in the center of the table, an hour being allowed for dinner and half an hour each for breakfast, supper and relaxation after meals.

The regime within the house was strict and undoubtedly had a punitive aspect. Designed above all for "the distressed soul, who has … perceived the error of her ways, and loathes her former vileness," it strongly emphasized the horror of the women's past way of life and stressed the need for a complete break. Inmates were known as "penitents" or "magdalens," recalling the Biblical Mary Magdalen ; their letters were subject to examination by the superintendent and their spiritual welfare was in the charge of a chaplain, who "exhorts and reproves them when required." Their real names were not used in the asylum. On admission, they were assigned a number by which they were to be known throughout their stay, a practice designed to protect their anonymity, but which also tended to depersonalize them and to emphasize the break with their former existence. On the other hand, the regime, though strict, was not inhumane. The house rules, for instance, stipulated that "it is Lady Arbella's wish that no business should be done in the Kitchen or Laundry after Candlelight and that all should be collected in the workroom, that work, reading and good instruction might go on with comfort, order, and tranquility for the mutual advantage of the whole family." There was, too, a recognition that prostitution was a response to economic factors and that moral reform must be under-pinned by social rehabilitation. The majority of those admitted were under 17 years of age; women over 20, regarded as "incapable of instruction," were theoretically not accepted, although the registers of the house show that exceptions were sometimes made to this rule. The usual "period of probation" was two to three years, and an inmate was only dismissed when she had either been reconciled with her family or furnished with "a means of honest livelihood." Training was given in skills such as needlework and housework, and most of the inmates who successfully completed their term appear to have found employment either in the needle trades or in domestic service. On leaving the house, they were given such clothes as were necessary, as well as a bounty of three guineas provided by Lady Arbella out of her own pocket.

Although Denny retired from her involvement with the Foundling Hospital in 1778, describing herself in a letter to Lord Shelburne at that time as "a cripple," she continued to be closely associated with the management of the asylum until at least 1790, when she made her final entry in the house register. She died two years later at the age of 85, expressing in her will her regret "that the smallness of my fortune will not, in justice and prudence, allow me to make any donation to charities so worthy of support" as the Foundling Hospital and the Magdalen Asylum. Never a wealthy woman, she had spent much of what she did possess on her various philanthropic endeavors. However, her will did reflect her charitable interests: in addition to legacies to family and friends, she left £20 to be distributed among "the most industrious and impotent" of the poor of Tralee, as well as bequests to the poorhouse and roomkeepers at Lixnaw and to the poor living near her house at Black-rock. Typically too, she left precise instructions with regard to the arrangements for her burial, directing that her body be left uncoffined for three days to make certain that she was dead, and that her coffin should have no ornament, "my name and age only on the top, with the date." Nevertheless, her funeral was a spectacular affair. Contemporary newspaper reports describe the passage of the hearse, drawn by six horses, from Dublin to Tralee, and the funeral itself, attended by a number of "wailing" mourners, 12 widows whom she had supported since her husband's death some 50 years earlier. In Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy offered "a prize medal, value 100 guineas, for the best monody on the death of the late Lady Arabella Denny," and a few months later such an elegy was published, eulogizing Lady Arbella's unbounded charity, and in particular her work for foundlings and for prostitutes. This aspect of her mission was also noted in a second poetic tribute, published in the Dublin Chronicle of September 22, 1792. Supposedly written by a magdalen, it mourned the loss of a "bless'd saint … our greatest friend," and anticipated the imminent end of the asylum itself. In fact, the institution did survive, becoming a home for unmarried mothers rather than for penitent prostitutes, but retaining until well into the present century many of the features that Lady Ar-bella had herself introduced.

Denny was, above all, a practical philanthropist, who left little indication of the impulses that fuelled her humanitarianism. One motivation was clearly her faith, which she summarized as a sense of duty "to God, my neighbours, and myself," and which she hoped to pass on to the objects of her charity. The Magdalen Asylum, she wrote, "was founded only for the shelter and advantage of … penitent Christians that in a state of peace and tranquillity they may learn their duty to God, to their neighbour and to themselves." Alongside this ran a second and more secular concern for order, which is evident both in small things, such as her passion for punctuality, and in the whole thrust of her work, which like most other philanthropic initiatives of the period, was pragmatic as well as humanitarian. Charity was not simply a Christian obligation; it was also a means of controlling the poor and marginalized, with the ultimate aim of safeguarding order within society itself. Within the Magdalen Asylum, penitents, through the development of personal discipline and an approved mode of behavior, were to become useful and virtuous members of the community, while society itself would be protected against the threat posed to its security by ignorance, vice, and license.

Lady Arbella's philanthropy, therefore, had clearly conservative elements. Yet she was also a pioneer, in initiating action on behalf of those, such as foundlings and prostitutes, who had previously attracted little attention from the benevolent, and in the claim that she staked for women in the field of organizational charity. The limitations on her potential for reform in relation to the Foundling Hospital may well have been instrumental in indicating to her the desirability of an institution over which she could exercise full control. The Magdalen Asylum provided such an opportunity, and in the process offered to other philanthropic women guidelines for organization and action, and a training that they could employ in subsequent decades in new institutions and in a variety of causes.


Bayley Butler, Beatrice. "Lady Arbella Denny 1707–1792," in Dublin Historical Record. Vol. IX, no. 1, 1946–47, pp. 1–20.

Fitzmaurice, Edmond. Life of William, Earl of Shelburne. Vol. 1. London: Macmillan, 1875.

Peter, A. A Brief Account of the Magdalen Chapel. Dublin. 1907.

Ponsonby, Arthur. Scottish and Irish Diaries. First published 1927. Reissued NY: Kennikat Press, 1970.

Ryan, Richard. Biographia Hibernica: A Biographical Dictionary of the Worthies of Ireland. London: 1822.

suggested reading:

Robins, Joseph. The Lost Children: A Study of Charity Children in Ireland, 1700–1900. Dublin: I.P.A., 1980.


Registers of the Magdalen Asylum, Leeson Street, vols. I and II, 1766–1798, Denny House, Dublin.

Proceedings of the Dublin Society, vols. I–XXV, 1764–1789, Royal Dublin Society, Dublin.

Assorted material in the National Library of Ireland and in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland

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Denny, Arbella (1707–1792)

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