Each child admitted to the Foundling Hospital was given a unique identifying number and, with a few exceptions, a new name. The number and the register allowed the Hospital Governors to keep track of the children. If asked, and sometimes they were, they could find out where any child in the care of the Hospital was at any given time. For babies, the number was attached to a metal tag securely fastened around their neck. The tag could not be removed ensuring no child could be exchanged for another. Perhaps this was because the Governors were fearful that if a Foundling pupil died a nurse could place the number on another infant’s neck and continue to claim her wages.
For modern day researchers, the number system allows us to follow an individual foundling from admission to nurse care, back to the Hospital, and on to eventual apprenticeship. It can track a child in the infirmary and link us to other miscellaneous records. Once children completed their apprenticeship and moved into the world of work, the trail often goes cold. Even with the increasing availability of digitised records and online transcriptions it is often only when a child has a more uncommon name that we can continue to learn their fate. The trail can easily be lost again because Foundling pupils frequently covered up their origins by writing a false place of birth and sometimes inventing deceased parents on marriage certificates.
Following the life of Benjamin
On the 14 January 1838, Benjamin Scarlett was one of the very last names at the end of a baptism register. He was the 19,999th child to be admitted to the Hospital. Even without using any other Hospital records we can find a considerable amount about this boy’s life outside of the institution. Using the 1841 census we can learn more about the family who took him into their home and cared for him for the first five years of his life. The census tells us that his foster parents were James and Jane Hudson, both living in Chertsey with their daughter Eliza, who like Benjamin was three years old. James and Jane were both twenty years of age and James’ occupation was listed as labourer. Caring for two babies instead of one was a relatively easy way to boost the family income.
Benjamin returned to the Hospital by the time of the 1851 census but finding him on the 1861 census was not so easy. However, his name was unusual so it is probable that he was the Benjamin Scarlett living at 41 Lime Street in London and working as a clerk. He states Chertsey as his place of birth – he would not be the first Foundling pupil to hide his origins by recording his foster home as his place of birth. At this time, he is living with a George Butler, aged 19 and a warehouseman. George also stated that he was born in Chertsey but there is no record of him at the Foundling Hospital.
Marriage, family and death
I found a record for a Benjamin Scarlett marrying Mary Ann Whitby on 7 December 1873. He is recorded as a clerk and he is of the right age, his father’s details are left blank. This makes it more likely that we have the right man. By the time of the 1881 census Benjamin was living in Shrubland Road, Shoreditch with his wife Mary Ann and a son, also Benjamin, six years old. Not unusually the family share their house with another young family. Living conditions must have been cramped and perhaps not particularly healthy. Sadly, the next record I found is the burial of young Benjamin Scarlett, aged only nine years.
By 1891 Benjamin and Mary Ann had moved to Albert Road in Dalston. No other children are mentioned, and none have been found. Benjamin, listed as a commercial clerk, continues to provide Chertsey as his place of birth. By 1898 Benjamin has died, and Mary Ann followed just two years later.
It seems likely that Benjamin’s story was not untypical for many of the Victorian Foundling pupils. Unlike earlier children at the Hospital, boys and girls were taught reading, writing and arithmetic from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It gave them enough skills to get by but probably did not encourage them to expect any more. With no descendants, Benjamin’s life could have remained a secret. However, I believe that as we reveal each individual biography, we gain a better understanding of the role of institution.