The Foundling Hospital (Part 2)

As I stated in the previous blog, the hospital opened its doors in 1741, and mainly took in children less than a year old, the only exception being orphans of war. Parents who brought their children to the hospital would usually leave some sort of a token, as they hoped to claim them back as soon as they were able to.

Many of these tokens have been preserved, some of them being part of the clothing the child was swaddled in on admission.  A piece would be cut from it, then cut in half. One half was given to the parent, and the other half was kept by the hospital, along with the date of admission. This would allow the child to be identified if the parents came to claim it. However, many parents chose to also leave a small token for the child, often a penny engraved to make it unique, poems, needlework or jewellery. Many of these are now in the Foundling Museum, and are heartrending, not least because the vast majority of the babies were never reclaimed.

Illustration of the Chapel of the Foundling Hospital

The hospital was soon overwhelmed with requests, so had to restrict the number of infants it would take, which must have been a very difficult decision for the staff to make.

Once accepted, babies were generally sent out to wet-nurses, with whom they would stay until they were four or five years of age, before returning to the hospital for an education in order for them to find appropriate work.

Girls were usually apprenticed as servants at sixteen and boys to various trades when they were fourteen.

In 1756 the government decided that all children offered had to be admitted, and funding would be available from parliament. As a result of this nearly 15,000 children were presented to the hospital in the following four years, at a cost of £500,000 to the horrified government. Interestingly, of these 15,000 only 4,000 survived to be apprenticed out. While this seems like an extraordinarily high number of deaths, remember that the general mortality rate of children in the eighteenth century was extremely high. After this the government withdrew their funding, and the hospital would then only receive children accompanied by a sum of money. 

This idea was abandoned in the early nineteenth century, after which no money was accepted, but instead mothers who brought babies to be accepted were examined thoroughly – only illegitimate children of previously respectable women were accepted, and only their first child, and it had to be ascertained that the mother, once her child was taken by the hospital, would become an honest woman once more. It’s hard to imagine how desperate the poor women must have felt, to endure such a humiliating interview, with no certainty that their baby would be accepted.

Throughout the eighteenth century, there were of course abuses of the system, as there always are of any well-intentioned endeavour.

One of these was among men who would promise to take children from the countryside to the hospital, but instead abused the children horribly, often not delivering them at all. 

Illustration from Newgate Calendar of Elizabeth Brownrigg flogging Mary Clifford

A particularly brutal incident, which shocked even the hardened citizens of the day, was the story of Elizabeth Brownrigg, a midwife, who took in apprentice girls as domestic servants, and then tortured and beat them. A detailed reading of what she did to the girls is truly sickening. After one of the girls, Mary Clifford, died of her injuries, the hospital investigated, and Brownrigg was found guilty and hung for the murder in 1767. 

Following that, the hospital held a more detailed investigation of people wishing to take on apprentices.

The foundling hospital continued in various guises and locations until the 1950s. The original hospital building was demolished a long time ago, but the later hospital in Berkhamsted became a school. The Thomas Coram foundation still exists and is now a large children’s charity.

Painting of Thomas Coram by William Hogarth

It’s good to know that this incredibly caring and dedicated man is still remembered after so many years, and that many lives must have been saved and enriched by his determination.  Sadly, he was not treated as well as he should have been in life. As I stated before, he was neither wealthy nor high-born, and was a very plain speaker, expressing his views openly. This led to him being deselected from the Foundling Hospital Committee in 1743, after which he was not allowed to make any decisions about what he called his ‘darling project’.  He never had any children, and in later life when his wife died, he would pass gingerbread through the gates to the children living at the hospital. He was also godfather to a number of the babies. When he was in his seventies, he was still campaigning for a second hospital to be opened, recognising the need for one.

Having spent all his money on philanthropic projects (the Foundling Hospital was not his only charitable endeavour), he was very poor, and as he entered his eighties, one of his friends realised he was struggling badly, and arranged for a pension to be raised, which was contributed to by the Prince of Wales, Frederick (for whom I have affection, and who features on several occasions in my Jacobite Chronicles).

Thomas Coram died in 1751, when he was 84, and was buried on the site of the Foundling Hospital. His body is now in St Andrew’s Church, Holborn.

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  1. Thank you, this was very informative and sad of course but interesting. It’s so important to see the individuals who had that great vision for the greater good without personal gain.

  2. What a sad thing that an institution begun with such promise evolved into something so far from its original mission. I believe it is not unlike many other such charitable organizations, though. Both parts of this piece were so very interesting. I’m disappointed that Thomas Coram was so badly treated by the very institution he dedicated his life to at the end of his life. And how like Frederick to come to his rescue! I too have a soft spot for Freddie! Great write-up!

    1. I agree, it did end sadly, as many such things do. But that doesn’t take away from the intent of the wonderful man Thomas, or the fact that it must certainly have prevented a good number of deaths, and given foundlings at least a chance of a decent life. Yes, I have a soft spot for Frederick too, but you may have already guessed that! Another fascinating man!