From the Foundling Hospital’s opening in 1741, the criteria for which children were allowed to be admitted evolved considerably. This was in response to the needs of the destitute children of London, and the changing attitudes to their mothers. While the admissions process was originally based on luck through a ballot system, the criteria gradually developed into something more moralistic and more difficult to obtain.

On Wednesday 25th March 1741 30 children – 18 boys and 12 girls – were the first admitted to the Foundling Hospital. These children were inspected to ensure they were healthy but no questions were asked about their circumstances.

From 8pm ‘until the house is full…open for children under the following regulations; that no child exceed in age two months nor shall have the French Pox or disease of 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.

‘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.’ (from archive document)

After this initial influx, applications increased rapidly. 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.

Each mother hoping for a place for a child draws from a ballot. A white ball means the child will be admitted if it passes a health inspection. An orange ball means the child will be admitted if another fails their health checks. A black ball means the child will not be admitted.

The ballot system

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

Each woman is 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 take the ball for them.

A white ball means the child will be admitted if it passes an inspection to show it is free from fever or other infection. The mother and child are then taken to a separate room where the child is examined. An orange ball means the mother and child is taken to another room, to be called if any of the accepted children fail their health checks. A mother withdrawing a black ball will not have their child admitted, and will be sent away immediately.

The General Reception

The General Reception period lasted four years, starting in 1756. Parliament votes that all children brought to the Foundling Hospital in London are to be admitted. Funds are provided by Parliament.

However, the Foundling Hospital cannot keep up with the numbers of children brought to its doors. Death rates soar as infections spread among babies and children. The Governors cannot recruit enough wet nurses to keep up with the numbers of babies admitted.

Foundling Hospital branches are built across England, and the costs increase enormously. Early in 1760, Parliament votes to end the General Reception. Of nearly 15,000 children admitted in this period, 10,3989 die from infections. The cost to Parliament during this period is £500,000. After its conclusion, Parliament continues to fund those 6,293 children who are living in the various Foundling Hospitals until they are apprenticed.

Between 1760 and 1763, orphans of military fathers are the only children admitted. Many children in such circumstances can get no help under the Poor Laws, as they are not registered in a local area or parish.

From 1763, a mother wanting have her child taken in to the Foundling Hosptial has to give her name and the reasons for being unable to look after her child. Married and unmarried women bring their children to the Foundling Hospital. Some children are admitted having been abandoned by parents.

In 1767, parliament says that Overseers of the Poor in London parish offices may send poor children to the Foundling Hospital and agree payment to the FH for the purpose. This measure comes about in response to concern at the shockingly high death rates among children sent to workhouses under the Poor Laws.

More changes to criteria

In 1795, The Hospital makes explicit its aim of accepting children to ensure ‘the restoration of the mother to work and a life of virtue’. Common themes in the petitions of mothers include desertion by the child’s father; seduction (grooming, in today’s terms) and rape; the social disgrace of being a single mother, and the inevitability of unemployment and homelessness that come from this social stigma.

This is followed in 1801 with the new criterion that the child has to be illegitimate (born to parents who were not married to each other). Orphans of soldiers and sailors in the British Army and the Royal Navy continue to be the exception to this rule. Additionally, from 1819, petitioners have to say whether their child is ‘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 sets 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 adds that a mother meeting these terms is also more likely to have her child accepted if she is poor and without any relations to support her, and if ‘her delivery and shame are known to few persons’. It helps also if giving her child to the Foundling Hospital means that she will be able to keep ‘her station in society, and obtaining by her own exertions an honest livelihood.’

In 1853, Charles Dickens writes 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 are interviewed and their statements investigated. Across the centuries, many petitions in the archives are 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.