Illegitimacy and the Foundling Hospital

Moses brought before the Pharoh's daughter. © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum.

When children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital, they were given a new name. But this name had no connection with the foster family with whom they had spend the first five years of their lives, or anyone with whom they came into contact in the Hospital itself. Instead, they would find themselves forever labelled as ‘foundlings’ – they were issued with a new birth certificate, and until 1953 this identified them as coming from the Foundling Hospital.

Until at least the mid 20th century Foundling pupils were stigmatised because almost all of them were illegitimate. It is difficult now to understand how deeply prejudiced society was against illegitimate children and their mothers.

Judged by society’s values

From at least the 16th century until the end of the 20th century it was seen as shameful for children to be born out of wedlock. This is because marriage was seen as essential to the stability of the family, and therefore to wider society.

Unmarried mothers and their children were deliberately stigmatised, both by the law and by society. This was an attempt to promote the ‘sanctity of marriage’ and encourage women to obey the rules of society. There were also strong practical reasons, because it was extremely difficult for a single woman to earn enough to support a child, and illegitimate children were at considerable risk of becoming a financial burden on society.

Thomas Coram encountered regular objections to his original campaign for the Foundling Hospital because it was often thought that by offering to support unmarried mothers and their children, he was encouraging what was seen as immoral behaviour by women and girls. Many of the major children’s voluntary societies refused to accept illegitimate children for this reason, and others, such as the Waifs and Strays Society, penalised their mothers by charging them a higher fee. For the same reason, the Foundling Hospital only accepted petitions for admission from women who were, ‘previous to their present misfortune’ of ‘good character, for virtue, sobriety and honesty’, and who had not previously had another illegitimate child.

Stigma in the 19th and 20th century

Until the mid 20th century the Foundling Hospital children were made to feel ashamed of their parents and the circumstances of their birth in an attempt to prevent them from following a similar path.

The label of illegitimacy was bitterly resented. Hannah Brown, a Foundling pupil in the 19th century, wrote an autobiography of her experiences. In it she said:

‘The victimization which has followed the women who have loved not wisely but too well is very well known… Were it not for the men who made these laws, there could never have been an ‘unmarried mother’. She is not a ‘fallen woman’ nor is her child ‘base born’

Ruth Miller, a Foundling pupil in the 20th century, similarly reflected on her experiences:

‘And my anger at being illegitimate grew over time and I did have a very, very angry time before I left Berkhamsted and I became quite aggressive….. the word ‘illegitimate’ is possibly the most searing word in the English language… It argues that you shouldn’t be here, you’re illegal’

Foundling Hospital children may have experienced particularly ruthless stigmatisation, but children in the care of other agencies had similar experiences. Children in Poor Law institutions in the 19th Century, for instance, were taught to be ashamed of their parents (and by extension ashamed of themselves), in a similar attempt to prevent them from following in their footsteps.

Until at least the early 20th century, children in care were told that they should be ‘grateful’ to those who looked after them, that they were ‘inferior’ to other children, and that they did not deserve privileges such as secondary education.

From the beginning of the C19th, the Foundling Hospital was no longer a home for abandoned foundling children as the name would suggest. It was a home for illegitimate children whose mothers were forced to give them up because of the stigma of raising a child born out of wedlock. However, despite frequent discussions by the governors to possibly change the name of the organisation, this did not actually happen until 1954.

As Gillian Pugh reflects in her book ‘London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital’: “Perhaps the continuing stigma associated with illegitimacy during the Evangelical nineteenth century was more than they felt potential donors could bear. The shame of illegitimacy continued well into the twentieth century, as the accounts of the former pupils have made clear.”

She adds: “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.”

However, 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 families.

Coram’s work since then has been informed by research into children’s emotional needs and the significance of early attachments between young children and their carers. This continues today, with supporting the emotional needs of, and building resilience in,  children and young people, including those who are care experienced, central to the work of the Coram Group of charities.