Illegitimacy, mortality and the Foundling Hospital

The Foundlings, engraving from the original painting by William Hogarth 1697-1764.

The Foundling Hospital was founded for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’, and many of the infants it received would otherwise have died.

In London between 1728 and 1737, at least 32% of babies died before they reached the age of one; 50% before they were three. However, illegitimate children (children whose parents were not married) were much more likely to die within their first year than those who were legitimate – as late as 1918, twice as many died.

Although at the opening of the Foundling Hospital, mothers were allowed to leave their child anonymously, we know that the vast majority of children admitted to the Foundling Hospital were illegitimate. Arrangements to place illegitimate babies in the Foundling Hospital continued all the way until the 1960s, and provided one of very few options for unmarried women who found themselves pregnant.

Although the admission to the Foundling Hospital meant mother and child were likely to be permanently separated, many people thought this was better than the alternatives. Until late in the 20th century, unmarried mothers were severely stigmatised and society made it difficult for them to support themselves or a child. Legislation that made it possible for an unmarried mother to be declared a ‘moral imbecile’ and placed in an institution was not repealed until 1959, and illegitimate children only became equal in the eyes of the law in 1987.

Difficult decisions

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the future of illegitimate children was bleak. If mothers abandoned their babies, the infant became the responsibility of the parish, and the mortality rates for babies looked after by the parish were much higher than those for other infants. Jonas Hanway calculated that, in 1763-4, in one of the London parishes 86% of these infants died in their first year. Another option was to place the child for ‘adoption’ with ‘baby farmers’: the mother paid a stranger five pounds to take the baby, with the expectation that he or she would be cared for, but there would be no further contact. With no surveillance, and no continuing financial support, many of these babies were simply allowed to die.

While illegitimate children in the community did not have a good chance of survival, within the Foundling Hospital in its early days the statistics are similarly bleak. Between 1741 and 1760 the overall mortality rate for Foundling Hospital children was 61%, and 53% for those who were nursed by families in the countryside. This may be due to the fact that many were in very poor health when they first came to the Hospital.

Mortality also appears to have increased between 1756 and 1760. During this era, known as the General Reception, the government gave funding to the Foundling Hospital on the condition that they admit all children (within age limitations). During this period, many sick or dying children were taken across the country to London for admission and the mortality rate rose to 81%. After the General Reception, infant mortality rates decreased to 28.6% (1771-1797), although the overall child mortality rate remained high (46%).

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.