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The rules for accepting a child into the Foundling Hospital were often changed. They reflect evolving attitudes to the children’s mothers, and the hospital’s efforts to control the numbers of children brought to its doors. While the admissions process was originally based on ‘first come, first served’, it soon developed into something more moralistic and exclusive.

On the first night, Wednesday 25 March 1741, 30 children – 18 boys and 12 girls – were taken in. Each had to pass a very basic health inspection. It was important for the hospital that mothers should not be asked their circumstances. This was made clear by the governors in the notice announcing its first night of admissions.

It said that the Foundling Hospital would be open from 8pm ‘until the house is full…for children under the following regulations; that no child exceed in age two months nor shall have the French Pox [syphilis], Evil, Leprosy or Diseases of the like Nature; all children to be inspected and the person who brings it to come in at the outer door and not to go away until the child is returned or notice given of its reception.

It continued: ‘No question asked whatsoever of any person who brings a child, nor shall any Servant of the Hospital presume to enquire on pain of being dismissed…The narrow circumstances of the Hospital confining governors to a limited number, that everyone may know when such numbers shall be completed, a notice will be posted that the house is full. If any particular marks are left with the child great care will be taken for their preservation.’

On admission days, often 100 women with babies came for the 20 places on offer. Usually, ten boys and ten girls were admitted. On these days, fights and general disorder were commonplace. Fraudsters preyed on mothers, taking money on the promise that they could get a child admitted, when there was no such system.

The ballot

In 1742, the Hospital introduced a ballot. Women bringing babies were told to sit in the Court Room on benches under ‘strict orders not to stir from their seats.’

Each woman was called forward to draw a ball from a bag containing as many white balls as places available. Mothers who wanted to remain anonymous (‘concealed’) could have the bag taken to them or have the matron or nurse draw the ball from the bag on their behalf.

A white ball meant that the child would be admitted if it passed the health inspection. The mother and child were then taken to a separate room where the child was examined. An orange ball meant that the mother and child would be taken to another room, to be called if any of the accepted children failed their health checks. A mother withdrawing a black ball would not have their child admitted, and would immediately be accompanied away from the hospital.

The General Reception

In 1756, Parliament voted that all children brought to the Foundling Hospital in London were to be admitted. Funds were provided by Parliament. The General Reception lasted for nearly four years.

It did not go well: the Foundling Hospital could not keep up with the numbers of children it had to accept. This now included older children as well as babies. The Governors could not recruit enough wet nurses to foster the babies for their first few years. Death rates soared as infections spread. Of nearly 15,000 children admitted in this period, over 10,000 died from infections. The Foundling Hospital built branches across England, to cope with the numbers of children in its care.

At £500,000, the cost to Parliament during this period was enormous. Early in 1760, Parliament voted to end the General Reception, although it agreed to fund the 6,293 ‘Parliamentary Children’ – children who had been taken in during those four years. They continued living in the various Foundling Hospitals until they were old enough to be apprenticed.

Between 1760 and 1763, orphans of military fathers were the only children admitted. Children in such circumstances could not get help under the Poor Laws, as they were not registered in a local area or parish.

From 1763, a mother wanting to have her child taken into the Foundling Hospital had to give her name and the reasons for being unable to look after her child in a petition. Common themes and phrases in the petitions of mothers included desertion by the child’s father; seduction*; sexual assault; rape; the social disgrace of being a single mother, and the inevitability of unemployment and homelessness that came from this social stigma.

Married and unmarried women brought their children. Other children were admitted having been abandoned by both parents.

In 1767, Parliament said that Overseers of the Poor in London parish offices could send poor children to the Foundling Hospital, and agreed payment to the Foundling Hospital. This was a response to concern at the shockingly high death rates among children sent to workhouses under the Poor Laws.

Restoring ‘A life of virtue’

In 1795, the Foundling Hospital makes explicit its aim of accepting children to ensure ‘the restoration of the mother to work and a life of virtue’.

This was followed in 1801 with the new criterion that the child had to be illegitimate (born to parents who were not married to each other). One exception to this rule was that orphans of soldiers and sailors in the British Army and the Royal Navy would continue to be accepted. Additionally, from 1819, petitioners had to say whether their child was ‘the child of colour’, although the reasons for this are not clear.

Government Report on Admission to the Foundling Hospital

A Commission reporting to the Government on the larger charities in London in 1836 set out the rules for admission to the Foundling Hospital:

  1. ‘That the child shall be illegitimate, except the father be a soldier or sailor killed in the service of his country
  2. That the child be born, and its age under 12 months
  3. That the petitioner shall have borne a good character previous to her misfortune or delivery.
  4. That the father shall have deserted his offspring, and be not forthcoming, that is not to be found or compellable to maintain his child.’

The report added that a mother meeting these terms was also more likely to have her child accepted if she was poor and without any relations to support her, and if ‘her delivery and shame are known to few persons’. It also helped if giving her child to the Foundling Hospital meant that she would be able to keep ‘her station in society, and obtaining by her own exertions an honest livelihood.’

In 1853, Charles Dickens wrote that the child must be the first-born, and that the mother should have been promised marriage, and have never lived with the child’s father.

Mothers were interviewed and their statements investigated. Across the centuries, many petitions in the archives were submitted with statements from people in support of the mothers. These rules and practices applied until the end of the charity’s role as a residential home and school for children, in 1953.

*The word ‘seduced’ appears frequently in our archives, especially in petitions from mothers to the Foundling Hospital. From the 15th century onwards, its specific meaning in English was to entice a woman who had not been sexually active to have sex outside marriage (termed ‘criminal conversation’). The nearest equivalent today to its usage in those earlier times would be ‘grooming’ — although this is not an exact equivalent. Mothers applying to the Foundling Hospital made it clear to the governors that these were their circumstances, in order to have any chance of their children being admitted.

 Today the word seduction is used far more broadly and does not carry the connotations it did in earlier centuries. Its usage in eighteenth and nineteenth century petitions from mothers to the Foundling Hospital point to the widest range of sexual encounters, including consensual sex, sexual assault, and rape.