Identity at the Foundling Hospital

Foundling pupils in the 20th century.

After being renamed and baptised, children who were admitted to the Foundling Hospital were sent to foster carers in the countryside where they spent the first five years of their lives.

When these children left their foster carers and went back to the Foundling Hospital their identity was disrupted a second time. We know from 20th century accounts that, at least during this period, the children’s return to the Hospital (or later to the Foundling Hospital school at Berkhamsted) as five year olds had many similarities to their admission to the Hospital as babies. Clothes and toys that represented a link with their foster families were taken from them, they were bathed and their hair was cut.

No room for individuality

For the 19th and much of the 20th century, the children lived under strict conditions in the Hospital. Individuality was not encouraged and conformity to rules and regulations was a must. The children wore uniform, and in the 20th century the girls all had the same ‘shingle bob’ haircut. Their dormitories were kept extremely tidy and contemporary photos show no signs of personal possessions. Because of the stigma associated with illegitimacy, this institutional approach was believed to help erase the children’s past and turn them into “respectable citizens”.

However, these experiences were not unique to the Foundling pupils; there is evidence that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, children in similar institutions run by the Poor Law Guardians or voluntary societies were also under strict regimes. These huge institutions were modelled on the factories and mills of the industrial revolution.

The toll it takes

Recent interviews with former Foundling pupils who attended the school in the 1940s and 50s, show the toll this institutional approach took on their sense of identity. Some of them strongly resented ‘being a number, not an individual’, and looked for experiences that might differentiate them from the other 400 children in the school.

Beatrice a former Foundling pupil, recalls her living quarters:

“You each had your single bed, and a little sort of wardrobe thing. There had to be nothing on it. We were allowed no ornaments, no photographs, no pictures. You had your brush and your comb, and in the bottom you had your spare knickers and socks and, your uniform, in the, in the side. And then, nothing else, nothing was allowed to be out of place”

Those who successfully conformed found it difficult in adulthood to express their emotions. Alice, another former Foundling pupil talks about the toll this took on her:

“You had this shell round you, in the end, because when I first met my husband, he said, “You’re very hard,” I said, “No, I’m not, you’d be surprised. It’s just a cover.” You didn’t cry and– and looking back, when I had my children and the grandchildren, I thought, “You have someone to go and tell all these things to”

There is also evidence that institutionalised children who have been taught to follow a strict regime which gives them little opportunity to express their individuality may lack struggle with independence when they leave care.

Concerns about the adverse effect of institutional life on children’s development emerged in Britain in the 1870s and were reinforced by Jane Nassau Senior’s report (1874) on the outcomes for girls who had been brought up in pauper schools, and the Mundella report (1896) on the education of pauper children in the Metropolitan district schools.

In 1870 the Poor Law Board issued an order sanctioning the boarding out of pauper children outside their local unions, in foster homes to be supervised by committees of volunteers. The major voluntary children’s rescue societies all placed children in foster care from at least the 1880s; they also began to introduce smaller family group homes instead of large institutions.

However, as Gillian Pugh reflects in her book ‘London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital’, the Foundling Hospital took longer to adapt:
“It took the governors some time to catch up with public and professional opinion that suggested that children were better off living in families or in small group homes rather than in large institutions, and the history of the organisation during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly when children were based at the school in Berkhamsted and the governors in London, shows how just out of touch they were.”

Despite this, in 1955 Coram became the first children’s charity to close as a residential home and to place all the children in it’s care either back with their birth mothers, if that was possible, or with foster parents.

The newly named Thomas Coram Foundation for Children adapted under the leadership of well qualified childcare professionals with it’s approach informed by research into children’s emotional needs, in particular research on the importance of early attachments between young children and their carers. Coram continues as a charity group today offering better chances for children from our original Bloomsbury site.

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.