It seems very unusual for a child from the Foundling Hospital to be apprenticed at just three years old. In the 18th century, children were more often 10 or 11 when they started their working lives, but there are a few cases of these very early apprenticeships, as the following story demonstrates.

In the care of a wet nurse

Catherine Bray was received into the Foundling Hospital on 29 March 1758 and given the number 7894. The day after her admission, she was sent to the small village of Paulerspury, Northamptonshire, to a wet nurse, Ann Bitcheno. One other child was taken to the village that day, and another had arrived the previous month.

Paulerspury is three miles from Towcester and 78 miles from London. In the 18th century, it was mostly an agricultural community but was also known for its production of pillow lace, made by women in their own homes.

At that time the village had its own Foundling Hospital Inspectorate of nurses and their Foundlings, run by the vicar, the Reverend Mr Jones. From September 1759, it became part of the Towcester Inspectorate under William Hodges. Several villages around Towcester, as well as Towcester itself, were supplying nurses and taking in children from the Foundling Hospital.

This was during the time of the General Reception (1756-1760) when the Government provided funding for the Foundling Hospital on the understanding that every child brought to them was admitted. This led to many thousands of children being taken in, causing the Governors to make plans to establish branch hospitals around the country.

The reason for sending the children to nurses in the Towcester area would appear to be the decision to build a branch hospital at Shrewsbury. This branch was opened in 1759, initially in a rented house, with construction of the new building begun in the spring of 1760.

The Inspection Books in Coram’s Foundling Hospital Archive show that children nursed in the Towcester area were subsequently sent to Shrewsbury, a journey of 104 miles. It probably took several days, travelling in horse-drawn wagons with their nurses. There is a list of 14 children, all about the age of 3, being moved to Shrewsbury in March 1761 to be further nursed. Then they would be admitted to the new branch hospital to start their education. Catherine is on the list, but next to her name is written ‘Returned 8 Oct 1761’. Where was she being returned to? What happened to Catherine?

A request to the Governors

The Foundling Hospital Sub-Committee minutes tell the full story. When the time came for her foster parents, John and Ann Bitcheno, to send her off with the others, they could not bear to part with her.

What do we know of the Bitchenos? A rather strange surname, but it goes back several generations in the Paulerspury parish records. John Bitcheno had married Ann Ladd on 16 October 1752 at the village church. He was a turner, a woodworker who used a lathe.

A son, John, was born in 1754 and baptised at home on 11 March 1754 by the minister of the nearby Potterspury & Yardley Gobion Independent Church.  There is no evidence in the parish records of any more children, but Ann may possibly have had another child after this one, or been pregnant, to enable her to wet nurse Catherine.

Not wanting to part with Catherine, the Bitchenos had approached Mr Hodges, the Towcester Inspector, to ask the Governors if they could take Catherine on as their apprentice. There was no adoption possible in those days; apprenticeship to the foster parents was the closest legal equivalent. The Governors, however, had to make sure they were suitable to be master and mistress of so young an apprentice.

In their usual meticulous way, the Sub-Committee enquired into the character of John Bitcheno, wanting to know if he was sober and industrious and earning enough money to keep the child. The parishioners of Paulerspury were asked about John and gave him a good character reference, although Mr Arnold, a minister of another Parish, objected. However, at a Sub-Committee meeting in October 1761 it was resolved to tell Mr Hodges, the Towcester Inspector, that:

“…. if he remains of the opinion that Bitcheno, the Turner, may be trusted with the child he requires and seeing that the Parishioners give him a good Character, not to rest on the objection of Mr Arnold the minister of another Parish, particularly as Mr Arnold has given no reason.” (Sub-Committee Minutes, A/FH/A/03/005/004/232)

So, John Betchino was approved to have Catherine, aged three, as his apprentice from 8 October 1761. She was to be apprenticed until the age of 21 or married, to be employed in ‘household services’. John and Ann must have been delighted to be able to keep their little girl.

Apprenticeship Register: A/FH/A/12/003/001/052

A further decision

Two years later, John and Ann, and the now five-year old Catherine, made the long journey down to London to appear before the Foundling Hospital Sub-Committee on Saturday 2 July 1763.

The minutes read:

“John Bitcheno applied to this Committee and presented the child Caroline Bray who was Apprenticed to the said Bitcheno by order of the General Committee of the 8th October 1761 having come from Paulspury near Towcester with the said Child and his Wife to present her to the Governors of this Corporation and to assure them that she should be learnt to Knit, to Spin, to make Lace and in short should be brought up as their own child.” (Sub-Committee Minutes, A/FH/A/03/005/005/200)

As seen here, Catherine is sometimes referred to as Caroline. In the General Register and the Apprentice Register, she is referred to as Catherine, but as Caroline in the Sub-Committee minutes and the Paulspury Inspection book. Perhaps John and Ann Bitcheno preferred to call her Caroline, but official records had to record her by the name the Foundling Hospital had given her.

One can only wonder at what little Catherine thought of the imposing Foundling Hospital buildings and being presented to the two gentlemen Governors. John and Ann were probably nervous as well, but they succeeded in assuring the Committee of their intentions towards Catherine. It was ordered that the Indentures be delivered to John Bitcheno, making the apprenticeship legal. Catherine could be now brought up as their own child and learn all the skills she would need for her life in the village of Paulerspury.

A happy ending for a couple who wanted to take a Foundling into their family and treat her as one of their own.


Foundling Hospital Archive

Billet Book: A/FH/A/09/001/090/193

General Register: A/FH/A/09/002/002/438

Inspection Book: A/FH/A/10/004/001/512

Sub-Committee Minutes: A/FH/A/03/005/004/009; A/FH/A/03/005/004/232; A/FH/A/03/005/005/200

Apprenticeship Register: A/FH/A/12/003/001/052

Other Sources

Berry, Helen. (2019) Orphans of Empire: the fate of London’s foundlings. Oxford: OUP.

Gibson, Kate. (2023) Fostering the foundlings. History Today, April, pp28-37.