Catherine Cameron experienced difficulties as a teenager while in the care of the Foundling Hospital, facing punishment for alleged bad behaviour during her apprenticeships. Punishment in the mid-19th century differed significantly to how we would treat young people today and what we would deem proportional or appropriate.
Admission into the Foundling Hospital
Catherine was born on 9 September 1815 and admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 14 October at five weeks old. She was baptised that same day by Chaplain Heathcote in the Hospital chapel and assigned the number 19128.
Catherine was placed in the care of the Hospital by her mother, Rachel Holding, who was 24-years-old and unmarried. Rachel’s petition letter said that she had no friends and inadequate wages with which to care for her baby. Like many mothers who petitioned the Foundling Hospital to accept their child, Rachel worked as a servant. She lived at 1 Anthony Street in Wapping, East London.
Catherine’s father was John Lewis, a mariner, whom Rachel had met locally, at 4 Chapple Street, but had not seen since April 1815. He was reported to be at sea by the Hospital’s investigator.
According to Mrs Milford of Gill Street, Rachel’s employer who ran a girls’ school, Rachel had been working for her for seven months as a ‘laborious, honest servant’, and had not informed her of her pregnancy. Since Rachel had given birth, Mrs Milford had allowed Rachel to stay in her house and planned to bring her back into service, on account of her ‘good conduct’, if the Foundling Hospital admitted her baby.
In this period, entry to the Foundling Hospital was limited to children born illegitimately (i.e., to unmarried parents) and orphans whose fathers had been in the British Army and Royal Navy. Unusually for the period, the Foundling Hospital taught both girls and boys to read and to do basic accounting, and boys learned how to write. This was significant, as educating poor children was a controversial prospect at the time. Universal education in England would not be introduced until 1870, when Catherine would have been 55. As a girl born illegitimately to a working-class mother, therefore, Catherine had better prospects than her peers as a result of the education and apprenticeships offered by the Foundling Hospital.
Yet, this did not mean that it was a smooth process. Before the age of 18, Catherine had been apprenticed three times and served in additional hired servant positions. Her first apprenticeship started in January 1831, with Charles Buzzard, a painter who lived at 34 Jewry Street in Aldgate, London. In this position, as in all her positions, she was instructed in ‘household business’, meaning domestic service.
This apprenticeship ended only a year later after she was accused of ‘gross misconduct’ by Mr Buzzard. He had also recently moved his family to Gravesend and would be unable to continue employing Catherine there, prompting him to ask the Hospital to relieve him of her service. The matron then began looking for another apprenticeship for Catherine, accepting her back into the Hospital’s care on the condition that Mr Buzzard provide a reference ‘without prejudice’ for her.
Gross misconduct – Catherine is accused by her employer, Charles Buzzard
On 1 May 1832, Catherine began her second apprenticeship, with John Ford, a sailor, and his wife of 163 Strand, which is where King’s College London stands today. Unfortunately, only 18 days later, Mrs Ford attended the Hospital’s sub-committee meeting with Catherine, and requested to return her on the grounds of disobedience and obstinacy. Mrs Ford’s report was considered alongside that of Mr Buzzard and compared to the behaviour of her other apprentice, Martha Montague, also a Foundling, who had been doing well.
After assessing Catherine’s consistently poor reported behaviour, the Sub-committee recommended that, as punishment, she be placed for some time at Marlborough House, a ‘poor-house’ in Peckham run by Frederick George Aubin and William Richards. Poor-houses were the precursors to the workhouse system, which was instituted with the 1834 New Poor Law. When Catherine attended in 1832, this type of workhouse essentially functioned as a residential factory. Inside she likely continued doing domestic labour, including cooking, laundry, and sewing. Like many others, Marlborough House was large, housing hundreds of people, which created problems of overcrowding and the spread of disease, including cholera.
Although the 1834 Act intended to combat this mismanagement, this does not mean that treatment greatly improved afterwards. If not elderly or sick, inmates were put to work because the ‘New Poor Law’ stipulated that conditions should be harsh to discourage people from going there.
Catherine endured other instances of punishment that would appear objectionable to us today. In August 1833, she was sent to prison for 28 days of solitary confinement after Leonard Just brought her to court for her conduct. She was accused of ‘disobedience, sauciness, and forwardness’, and was unable to guarantee a change in her behaviour.
Disobedience, sauciness, and forwardness – accusation against Catherine by Leonard Just
The exact nature of Catherine’s actions, which warranted such strong descriptions, is not given in the Foundling Hospital records. The nature of the time also meant that Catherine was not able to contest the claims made against her. In the above case in court, her Master had to speak for her, and in the Foundling Hospital, the secretary briefly recounted the court proceedings.
While such punishment is shocking to us today, it was common for servants to be mistreated, especially young women. This included physical abuse from their employers but also severe consequences through the legal system. It was not until 1861, thirty years after Catherine was first apprenticed as a servant, that it became illegal for employers to neglect or cause bodily harm to their servants and apprentices.
Also in 1832 and 1833, Catherine was twice employed briefly as a hired servant and had two failed trial placements. She continued to return to the Foundling Hospital in between postings. In March 1834 the matron found her a situation with Mrs Yallop of Hampstead, which paid £8 a year, but by June, Catherine requested to emigrate to Australia.
Emigration to Australia
Aged 18, and having endured several placements without satisfaction, Catherine wished to join other young women from the Foundling Hospital in travelling to Australia. The ship they travelled on was the David Scott, which left Gravesend on 10 July 1834 and arrived in Sydney on 25 October 1834.
After this, it is difficult to find information about Catherine. The Foundling Hospital kept comprehensive records, but once she was out of its care, fewer records concerning her remain, particularly since they lack the unique number assigned to her by the Hospital. It is likely that Catherine went on working as a household servant in Australia, as the British colony sought more female immigrants for the purposes of employment of this type and for marriage.
While it is hoped that she had a better life outside of the Foundling Hospital’s disciplinary systems, other former Foundlings experienced difficulty once outside the structured life of the Hospital. After all, they no longer had an institution to organise work for them and the safety net of knowing they could return should their employment end prematurely, for whatever reason.
Catherine’s story is one that was shared, but not common. While there are a number of recorded instances of problems with apprenticeships, particularly those put down to behavioural issues of young women, it was less common, albeit not unique, for punishment at the degree that Catherine faced. Similarly, although a number of Foundling girls were recorded as emigrating to Australia during the 1830s, this remained a rare experience.
Nicholls, George, A History of the English Poor Law, vol. 2 (1854)
Subotsky, Fiona, ‘Marlborough House Workhouse in the Surrey village of Peckham’, Peckham Society News (2013)
Weisbrod, Bernd, ‘How to Become a Good Foundling in Early Victorian London’, Social History (1985), vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 193-209
Offences against the Person Act (1861)
London Metropolitan Archives
Foundling Hospital Archive
Petitions admitted to ballot