Apprenticeships and the Foundling Hospital

Foundling pupils in the 20th century.

From Tudor times until the mid 19th century, ‘pauper children’, whose families were receiving financial support under the Poor Law, could be removed from their parents and sent away as apprentices in order to ensure that they would not become dependent on the state as adults. Many apprenticeships were highly exploitative, and gave children little or no opportunity to learn skills that would help them earn a living. In the 18th and early 19th centuries hundreds of “pauper” children were sent off by the London parishes to work in the mills of the North of England, where they had little protection and were often mistreated. In 1816 legislation was introduced to try to protect them.

The Foundling Hospital sent children out as apprentices from 1751. However, they were better protected than pauper children as they were given some supervision.

While the first boy apprenticed by the Foundling Hospital in 1751 was ten, later that year it was decided that 11 or 12 was the youngest age at which children should be apprenticed. However, this decision was ignored: by 1766 children as young as eight were being apprenticed. In 1806 the Governors resolved that no child under 14 would be apprenticed, and by the mid 19th century girls were rarely apprenticed before they were 16.

Children put to work

Some of the Foundling Hospital policies were bitterly criticised as being unfair to other children. In 1765 a House of Commons Committee condemned the education of the children because it made them unfit for ‘useful and laborious employment’ and recommended that they should be bound out as apprentices from the age of seven or earlier. The ensuing Bill was eventually dropped, but arguments that the children should be apprenticed out earlier continued until 1771.

There are records of young children being accounted for as ‘apprenticed’, but in many of these cases the children were taken into the families of their nurses (infants admitted to the Foundling Hospital were sent to live with a wet-nurse for the first few years of their lives, in a practice similar to modern fostering). Adoption did not exist legally, but apprenticeship gave some legal protection to what was in fact an unofficial adoption.

Servicemen and domestic servants

Boys from the Foundling Hospital were apprenticed to many different occupations; however, by the mid 19th century the majority went into the armed forces. Some girls were apprenticed to seamstresses and milliners, but the vast majority were apprenticed out as domestic servants. Pauper children in workhouses and district schools are likely to have had fewer employment opportunities than those at the Foundling Hospital, as they were apprenticed out at a younger age and with less education.

Foundlings also received an annual financial reward throughout their apprenticeship, and five guineas (£5.25) at the end of it. Not all the apprenticeships were successful: in 1805, of the 53 children who were bound out as apprentices ‘26 were doing well; 4 have been sent to sea for misconduct; 3 are complained of for misbehaviour but have promised amendment; 14 have absconded and gone to sea; 6 have been apprenticed to their friends’.

The influence and generosity of some of the Foundling Hospital Governors also led to a small number of Foundling Hospital children being apprenticed to tradesmen such as jewelers or merchants, which provided an opportunity for well-paid employment. From at least the 1930s one or two girls were sent each year to Camden School for Girls to complete their secondary education. Pauper children did not have these (admittedly rare) opportunities, however some of the other children’s voluntary societies were able to offer similar advantages – for instance in the late 19th century a small number of girls from the Children’s Society became pupil-teachers.

Prepared with the help of Dr Harriet Ward  CBE, Emeritus Professor of Child and Family Research at Loughborough University and Honorary Research Fellow, The Rees Centre, Department of Education University of Oxford.