Giving a child into the care of the Foundling Hospital was not necessarily a permanent decision. If a child’s parents changed their minds or their circumstances, they had the opportunity to claim their child back.

In the mid- and late-18th century, several systems were in place to confirm the child’s identity. Claimants filled in a form stating their name, relationship to the child, and the child’s date of admission. They gave a description of the clothes the child was wearing at that time, and any physical marks on the body. This information was compared with the original billet, where these details had been recorded. From 1759, a receipt was given out when a child was admitted to the Foundling Hospital, to ‘be produced if the Child should at any Time be claimed’. Similarly, if the parent had left a token or note with the child, they could describe this or produce another part of it (e.g., a matching piece of fabric or the corresponding item of a pair).

From 1768 onwards, the system for admitting a child into the Hospital changed. Parents had to ‘petition’ the Hospital to request admission for their child. These petitions were investigated before the petitioner could bring the child to the Hospital. The letters and reports drawn up in this process could be used later to confirm the identity of a claimed child, and so the use of tokens became less common and the billet system eventually ended in 1814. In the 19th century, mothers could reclaim their children by writing to the Hospital with information about the child and a justification for their claim.

Having submitted their claim, the claimant might learn that the child had died in the intervening years. If the child was found to be living, the Foundling Hospital would investigate the claimant’s situation and finances, just as it investigated petitions for the admission of a child. The Hospital would reject claims if the claimant was deemed unsuitable or unable to look after the child, as happened to Mary Brown, mother of Catherine Dunk.

Only around 3% of the 27,000 children admitted by the Foundling Hospital were ever reclaimed. Some mothers may have died in childbirth, or from poverty and disease in the intervening years. Many others simply could not afford another mouth to feed. The women who gave up their babies to the Foundling Hospital were almost always poor, unmarried, and facing overwhelming social stigma surrounding illegitimate children. These same factors prevented them from reclaiming their child. It would take a drastic change in circumstances to enable them to do so. Marriage was one way to achieve this, but then it was highly unlikely that their husbands would consider taking in an illegitimate child, as Mary Meadmore’s step-father did.

Until 1764, parents also had to pay a fee upon making their claim, even if the child in question had died. The fee, which reimbursed the Foundling Hospital for the cost of the child’s care, accumulated the longer the child stayed at the Hospital, making it almost impossible for parents to save enough to make a claim. This was such a significant barrier that more children were claimed in 1764 alone – after the fee was abolished – than had been claimed since the Hospital first admitted children in 1741.

If the Hospital approved a claim, parent and child would be reunited. Most children were reclaimed before the age of six, and therefore, many were retrieved from the county nurse who was looking after them. For older children who had already been apprenticed, the Hospital negotiated with their master to have them returned.

Here are the stories of some Foundlings who were reclaimed:

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