This article explores ‘maternalistic’ forms of governance in a 19th century female reformatory. The ideological foundations and operational practices of the reformatory movement have predominantly been analysed within a theoretical framework that prioritises their paternalistic construction. Yet overwhelmingly it was female matrons who took daily custody of these institutions. I argue here that an examination of this female presence disrupts the notion of paternalistic supremacy with regard to institutional power relations. However, this is not to suggest the complete elimination of paternalistic primacy. Rather, the paper will highlight how the matrons attempted to negotiate and manage the complex relations that emerged for themselves in their roles as both ‘governing’ and ‘governed’ women. The paucity and nature of the data available poses particular methodological issues and therefore the paper will also advocate a more ‘imaginative’ contextualised approach which embraces the ‘art’ as well as the ‘science’ of archival excavation.