Cutting ties with the past – how secrecy affected Foundling pupils

Emma Brownlow's The Christening, which depicts a Foundling being baptised and recieving a new name. © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Today’s understanding of way children develop is based on research and theory that began to take shape as recently as the mid 20th century. Before then, childhood was viewed very differently from the way we see it today and there was little understanding of how children develop their sense of identity and self-worth.

Because of this, some of the experiences of the Foundling Hospital children are likely to have compromised this area of their development.

A new identity

When children entered the Foundling Hospital, they were deliberately cut off from their past. They were baptised (sometimes for the second time) and given a new name. They were changed into new clothes, and the tokens that their mothers had left to identify them were kept locked away. It is unlikely that they ever saw them. In what was a very judgemental society, details of their birth families were kept secret to protect their mothers from the stigma of having given birth to an illegitimate child , allowing them to start again in the hope that one day they could rebuild their lives and reclaim their child.

But we now know, through research on children who have been adopted or who have been cut off from their culture and history, that knowledge about our origins is an important element of identity formation.

Secrecy in adoption

The policy of secrecy was maintained by the Foundling Hospital until the 20th Century. It was also part of general adoption practice in England and Wales from 1926, when the first adoption legislation was introduced, until 1976. There is some evidence concerning the impact of this in the Foundling Hospital archive. In 1758, concerns were raised that adult foundlings might be at risk of marrying relatives and unwittingly committing incest if they had no knowledge of their origins. This point was also made in a petition to the governors in 1802 from 14 boys for:

‘the obtaining of a Repeal, or such Relaxation of any existing Bye Laws, relative thereto, as may hereafter admit, of the Preservation of mutual Knowledge between the Children and their Parents.’

They also stated that knowing that their parents had enquired after them would ‘have caused us much satisfaction’. Recent interviews with pupils who attended the Foundling Hospital in the 1930s-1950s go to show both the pleasure and sometimes the pain of being reconnected to birth family members and finding out about a family background that had previously been kept hidden.

John Caldicott, a former Foundling Hospital school pupil, speaks about his own experiences:

‘But when we was at school we all fantasised about our father being some rich Raj or Prince or something and coming to claim us but that’s as far as it ever went; but I didn’t really bother, I just had that urge to think ‘well, let’s try and find out’, you know, about my real mother and father and see what happens and that’s why I wrote the letter in 1959 and I got the reply back and, as I say, which only mentioned my mother died and er..that someone else in the family didn’t wish to know as it was all under the carpet sort of thing and that was it. So it made me just… I wished just to… forget it.’

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.