Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Foundling Hospital: A Child's View

A mother leaving her baby at the Foundling Hospital, Paris.
Original canvas can be seen at the Foundling Museum, London.
My previous two posts looked at the Foundling Hospital, London, and how it looks today, and also an exhibition of tokens on display at what is now the Foundling Museum. But if, as a Georgian child, you were taken in by the hospital, what sort of upbringing could you expect?

Once admitted each child was given a new name. At first the hospital's governors lent their own names, but this turned out to be confusing for some children who held false hopes of illustrious parentage. 
Gin Lane by the 18th century artist, William Hogarth -
a perilous time to be a child.
The babies were breast fed and their first two to four years of life were likely spent in the countryside, farmed out to a wet nurse. At around about three years, they returned to London where they were inoculated against smallpox - a major innovation of the day. It seems an emphasis was placed on healthy living because they were encouraged to play outside.
"Exercised in the open air …as may contribute to their health and induce a habit of active hardiness."
The Foundling Hospital offered a better future than that of
an abandoned child living on the streets
However, even play was done with an eye to future work. For instance boys played with bats and balls.... and javelins because they might help them find a job!
"Inure them for a proper slight in the throwing a harpoon in the Greenland [whale] fishery."

Boys stayed in education for longer than girls, who at the age of six took on housekeeping duties around the hospital in order to make them:
"Useful servants to such proper persons as may apply for them."

Boys faired a little better  in terms of having a longer childhood, but at the age of twelve were often sent out into the world:
"At twelve years the boys be sent to sea or husbandry [agricultural labour] …to have in readiness boys instructed in gardening for such persons as may incline to take them into their service."
Foundling children during a church service.
The original painting is on display at the Foundling Museum, London
Whilst at the hospital the children wore a uniform designed by the Georgian artist, William Hogarth, who was a patron of the society. The girls wore brown serge dresses with a stiffened bodice but no stays, and the boys wore jackets and breeches, cheered by touches of red.

The food was: "plain and simple…their bread coarse and their drink water." Bread was made on the premises, perhaps making it more healthy than the adulterated and contaminated fair available in the city. However, the understanding of the nutritional needs of children was almost none existent and despite the governors best intentions, many of their wards suffered from scurvy or rickets.
Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in the 18th century,
and his work for the welfare of children continues in his name today.
Despite everything, a child raised by the Foundling hospital had a better start in life than many poor children: well trained, presentable and immune to smallpox - they stood a good chance of finding employment. The only downside was the hospital's finite resources. It's a telling and sad fact that in July 1749, out of 83 applications for mercy, only 20 babies were taken in.

If you have found this post interesting you may want to read:
London Then and Now: The Foundling Hospital
The Foundling Hospital: Fate, Hope and Charity

The statue of Thomas Coram, erected in his honour
outside the Foundling Museum


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post, and the companion pieces. Impossible to tour the Foundling Hospital without total emotional meltdown. My mother was raised in an orphanage during the Depression, and suffers side effects from malnutrition -- but defends the orphanage to this day, as a place that saved her, gave her a fighting chance.

    1. Goodness gracious me, Bee, that is a connection and a half!
      Thank you for sharing that comment.
      The first time I visited the Foundling Museum, just after studying the small display of tokens, I looked out of the window to gather my thoughts...and saw toddler playing in the neighbouring nursery school. Such a poignant moment. It made me wonder if those children realised how fortunate they are. But I suspect they do, as I know think the nursey is in part sponsored by the Coram Foundation (someone please correct me, if I'm wrong) and all the good work they do with the children of drug addicts and the like.
      kind regards,
      Grace x

  2. Thanks Grace for covering this interesting subject. I love these opportunities to learn new things in history.

  3. Thank you, Paula. If ever you get the chance to visit the Foundling Museum do go - it is a very moving experience. You get a feel for real people and the real struggles they had and such pain...beyond imagining have no better option than to give up your child.
    Grace x


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