Stories of Interest volunteer, Isabel Barrow, explores the true story of two ‘fallen’ women, a mother and daughter, both destined to make the same decision.

The Stories of Interest volunteers have been researching the little-known themes and connections between pupils at the Foundling Hospital to tell new and fascinating stories.

What was a ‘fallen woman’?

The ‘fallen woman’ was a Victorian social construct that described a woman who transgressed both sexual and societal norms. The term is one associated with promiscuity and a loss of chastity and can be seen as a juxtaposition of the stability and respectability associated with marriage. Despite living in the late eighteenth century, Mary Clarke and her daughter Mary Bentley are emblematic of this term, as two unmarried mothers, isolated from society.

Where the story began…

Our story starts with Mary Clarke, who gave birth to her daughter in 1774 in the City of London Lying-In Hospital, Finsbury. Opened in 1750, this hospital provided care for pregnant married women up until the birth of their child. This hospital was significant in that it was not only privy to the joyous birth of Mary’s daughter, but also Mary’s tragic death, a death brought about by childbirth.

Following Mary’s death, a letter from the Lying-in Hospital to the Committee of Governors at the Foundling Hospital reveals that all was not as it seemed. Mary was accused of lying under oath, claiming to be married when she was in fact single. There was outrage from the Lying-in Hospital, an overwhelming sense that Mary had unfairly burdened them with an illegitimate child and that the Foundling Hospital was duly obliged to take the baby. An ‘illegitimate’ child was one whose parents were not married.

With Mary Clarke being described in her petition, signed by Mr Thompson at the Lamb and Lark Tavern in Blackfriars, as ‘a friendless servant maid’, the Foundling Hospital had to intervene and provide a safe haven for her otherwise destitute daughter. Resultingly, on 1 June 1774 the baby was baptised under the name Mary Bentley, and given the number 16,906.

Not one plea, but two…

Mary Bentley experienced a standard upbringing in the Foundling Hospital. Following her baptism, she spent her early years under the supervision of a wet nurse and on return to the hospital her life there appeared to be a rewarding one. For instance, in 1787 she was one of only five girls presented with the ‘Silver Thimble Award’, an accolade reserved for those truly gifted in sewing. She then went on to be granted an apprenticeship; unfortunately, records do not disclose the profession.

Yet, this was not the last time her name appeared in the archives. In 1797, Mary submitted a petition for a child she could not care for. She was destitute, and her simple warehouse job was insufficient to support her child. Like her mother, Mary was a ‘fallen woman’, and in the context of the time, if she had kept the child the future would have been a bleak one for them both. Thus, on 6 May 1797, her daughter was baptised Phillis Harrison and given the number 18,371. Like her mother, Phillis became a foundling.

This was not the first time a previous foundling had given their child to the Foundling Hospital, but it was unusual for a mother to submit two petitions. Therefore, it comes as a surprise to find Mary Bentley’s name heading another petition, in 1799, concerning her four-week-old, second ‘misfortune’. The tone of this petition is one of distress and desperation. Mary is starving, having ‘not one friend on the face of the earth’, a statement echoing the situation of her mother twenty-five years prior. Yet this second child remains untraceable in the archives. Considering women tended to get only one chance in the eyes of the Hospital, it is likely that this petition was rejected, leaving us wondering where Mary ended up and whether her second child fell in her mother’s footsteps…

What can this teach us today?

This story highlights the struggles of single mothers in a world where society’s perceptions meant everything. For this mother and daughter, both without a spouse, both without a regular income, and both with a child that they could not care for, the Foundling Hospital offered hope for a better future, for themselves and their babies. Yet, as Mary’s petition for her second child suggests, even that support only extended so far.

This can therefore prompt us to take the compassion we feel for these women and consider those suffering in similar situations today. In today’s society, women are not explicitly branded ‘fallen’, but they are still subjected to the stigmas and challenges of the patriarchy. Tabloid newspapers and some MPs still scrutinise single mothers for their intentions and capability. They are depicted as ‘scrounging’ off the state, a notion synonymous with their perceived social carelessness.

Thus, parallels can be drawn to the 1700s, where if women so much as faltered, they were left with the consequences. For both Mary and her mother, their decisions were driven by desperation and destitution. Choosing to keep their babies was not an option, primarily because the societal support was not available to them as it is for single mothers today. The result saw Mary Bentley with little option but to fall in her mother’s footsteps…



British Library
National Archives
National Archives
New Statesman
The Guardian

Foundling Hospital Archives


Information also taken from Janette Bright, Foundling Hospital Historical Researcher

Copyright © Coram. Coram licenses the text of this article under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 (CC BY-NC).