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Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Foundlings and Orphans

One of the most famous children’s charities was the Foundling Hospital for unwanted and abandoned infants, founded in 1741 by Captain Thomas Coram. The first premises used by the hospital were some houses in Hatton Garden; later a grand new building was erected near Gray’s Inn. William Hogarth was one of the hospital’s patrons; later famous philanthropist Sir Thomas Bernard was a member of the hospital committee.
When mothers gave their unwanted baby to the hospital, they left a small token to help identify their child in case they ever wanted to reclaim it (only a tiny number ever did).  A silk purse, a coin, and even a lottery ticket were some of the items deposited (John Brownlow, Memoranda, or Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital, Sampson Low, 1847). 
Many charities like the Foundling Hospital, the Female Orphan Asylum at Lambeth (founded by John Fielding in 1758), and the Edinburgh Orphan School, apprenticed out the children in their care when they were old enough.
Some charities specialised in caring for the children of soldiers or seamen, like the Royal Hospital Schools at Greenwich, the ‘cradle of the navy’, founded in 1715. However it was not until 1783 that a special school-room and dormitories for 200 children were built inside the Royal Greenwich Hospital. In 1821 the Royal Hospital Schools merged with the Royal Naval Asylum for naval seamen’s orphans (founded in Paddington in 1798).  The schoolboys in the Hospital moved to the Queen’s House at Greenwich (where the Asylum had moved in 1818). If your ancestor was cared for by one of these institutions, my book Tracing Your Ancestors' Childhood has more information on archives and the types of records available.
Despite the work of charities like these, during the nineteenth century cities like London had ever-growing numbers of orphaned, destitute and criminal children and in my next blog post I’ll be discussing the way that the Victorians tackled these problems.

Images from the author’s collection:
Captain Thomas Coram. Hogarth’s Complete Works, Third Series. Chatto & Windus, 1874.
Orphan School, Edinburgh, Views of Edinburgh and Its Vicinity, 1819.
Royal Naval Schools, Greenwich:  ‘the cradle of the navy’. Old and New London Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter & Galpin, c. 1895).


SueL said...

I was so pleased to see that you included a link to the Threads of Feeling online exhibition in this post. The Foundling Hospital's original exhibition was informative and moving and the online version shows the colours and textures of the materials so clearly. Most importantly as an online exhibition it can be viewed again and again.

Sue Wilkes said...

I find these tokens infinitely moving - I would love to visit the Foundling Museum in person some time.