Apprenticeships and the Foundling Hospital

by Beck Price, Archivist, Voices Through Time Programme Thursday 9th May 2024
Foundling pupils in the 20th century.

When Thomas Coram established his plan for the Foundling Hospital, one of his main aims was to give the children the skills they would need to find future employment. The apprenticeships organised by the Foundling Hospital were a key foundation for their future livelihoods and independence.

Apprenticeships for boys

Boys were generally apprenticed to a trade or to the military or navy. A wide variety of the trades was possible, from physical labour, such as blacksmithing (see Edmund Fitz-George) and husbandry (see George Diston), to skilled work, such as clockmaking (see John Crowdhill) and musical instrument production (see Stephen Quilter). Boys were taught to read and write to a level that would help them in these trades, as well as receiving vocational education in the manual skills required for their future employment.

Jonas Hanway, a governor of the Foundling Hospital in the 1760s, was instrumental in providing men for seafaring through the Marine Society, which likely influenced the trend of boys being apprenticed to the ‘sea service’ during the late 18th century. From 1847, John Brownlow, the Hospital’s Secretary, helped to broaden the military options through the introduction of a military-style boys’ band. This allowed many boys at the Foundling Hospital to learn an instrument and therefore pursue a career in the military bands for both the British Army and Royal Navy.

Apprenticeships for girls

The options for girls were much more limited by contrast. Most girls were apprenticed as domestic servants, although some girls were apprenticed in textile work, such as tambour embroidery, weaving, and dressmaking. The focus on domestic service, also known as ‘household business’, remained largely unchanged for most of the Foundling Hospital’s history and signifies the disparity in opportunities between men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Domestic service was a common occupation for working-class women in these centuries, especially as more families became financially able to employ a maid of ‘all work’. It is also important to note that cleaning and other domestic chores had to be done by completely hand during this period, and so, servants were crucial in maintaining households.

Girls were apprenticed in houses across the country, from London in the case of Catherine Cameron to Lancashire in the case of Ann Young.  The girls had a range of experiences, with some getting on well with their masters and mistresses while others clashed with them. If there were major conflicts between a girl and the people she worked for, the Governors would move her to a different employer in the hopes of a better experience for both Foundling and employer.

The apprenticeship system

In the 18th century, most Foundlings were apprenticed at age 11 or 12, although some were apprenticed at ages 8-10. John Bowles, the first Foundling apprenticed from the Hospital, was 10 years old when he took up husbandry (working with farm animals) in 1751. In 1806, the age rose to 14, and by the mid 19th century, most Foundlings were apprenticed no younger than 16. Boys were apprenticed until age 21 or 24, and girls until age 21, or younger if they left to get married.

Foundlings lived with their apprentice master and his family during their apprenticeships. The Foundling Hospital staff regularly inspected the Foundlings at their place of work, both to ensure they were well behaved and that their master or mistress was treating them well. In the 19th century, masters provided testimonials on the Foundlings during their apprenticeships so that the Governors could judge who to reward for good behaviour. These testimonials largely focused on the Foundlings’ character, such as whether they were ‘sober’ and ‘obedient’, and gave room for the employer to give general comments on their work.

Foundlings were paid £5 a year for the last three years of their apprenticeship. If their master or mistress provided a good testimonial, they could also be awarded a five guinea gratuity, presented to them by the President of the Foundling Hospital at the annual Thanksgiving Service.

The Hospital was strongly against paying masters a fee for taking on a Foundling apprentice, a common practice for ‘pauper’ children at the time, because the Governors believed this would attract potentially exploitative masters. In the 1760s and 1770s, Parliament provided a grant for children admitted during the General Reception period (1756-1760) and applied particular pressure over this, stating that the money given to the Hospital should also cover apprenticeship fees. The Hospital continued to resist this, finally citing in 1771 the example of Jemima Dixon (No. 9264), a Foundling who had been murdered by her master, as a key case study in the dangers of offering apprenticeship fees.

In these same two decades, the Foundling Hospital operated six branch hospitals in the English regions. The branch hospitals arranged apprenticeships for the Foundlings in their care and carried out regular inspections. The apprenticeships chosen by the branch hospitals were often influenced by local businesses. For example, 24 out of 46 boys apprenticed from the Chester branch hospital were apprenticed in husbandry, clearly a key industry in the area. The Foundling Hospital still signed off all apprenticeship indentures and was ultimately responsible for the Foundlings’ careers.

Exceptions to apprenticeships

Finding apprenticeships for disabled Foundlings was often more of a challenge than finding opportunities for their non-disabled counterparts. Most potential employers were unable to accommodate disabled Foundlings, and as a result many disabled Foundlings stayed at the Hospital until their adulthood.

In these cases, the Foundling Hospital often employed the disabled Foundlings themselves so that they could continue to care for them in return for their labour, often in areas such as the kitchen (like Mary Elson) or assisting members of staff (like Mary Oxford and George Grafton). Many blind Foundlings were also educated in music and were later employed as musicians for the chapel services and music teachers for other Foundlings (such as Blanche Thetford).

Apprenticeships were sometimes used as an unofficial means of adopting the Foundling, either by their wet nurse and her husband, as in the case of Catherine Bray, or by their parent reclaiming them, as in the case of Joseph Palmer.

Copyright © Coram. Coram licenses the text of this article under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 (CC BY-NC).