Heather, a family historian in New Zealand, discovered details about her great great grandfather in the Coram’s Foundling Hospital Archive.

My search begins

I began researching my family history some years ago and all was going well until I came to the marriage of William Browning and Ann Ingham, my great great grandparents. From census records I knew that William had been born somewhere in Middlesex around 1843-1844, although he had married in Salford, Lancashire. Their marriage certificate recorded William’s father as also being called William, and here was my stumbling block. Over the years I purchased several birth certificates of children called William Browning, born around the London area in the same time period, but I always had niggling doubts about them. Eventually, I put William Browning into my ‘brickwall’ file and turned my attention to tracing his wife Ann Ingham.

This was reasonably easy to do as she had been born in Denbigh, Wales, and I knew her date of birth. I traced her through census records until I found her on the 1861 census as a domestic servant in the home of Mr and Mrs Schulz on High Street, Wandsworth (London). This is the moment I had my major breakthrough as there, on the same page of the census, living a couple of doors away, was a William Browning, born 1843/4, birthplace unknown. He was an apprentice whitesmith in the home of John Strand, whose occupation was also whitesmith. A whitesmith was a metal worker who did finishing work on iron and steel and produced finer items, such as keys and locks, than blacksmiths did.

My next move was to find William on the 1851 census and, after a bit of trial and error, I located him on the census pages for the Foundling Hospital, aged seven. I contacted Coram Adoption, who confirmed that he had been raised at the Hospital. They put me in touch with Coram’s Voices Through Time team, who helped me locate William in the digitised records of the Foundling Hospital Archive.

William’s early life revealed

In the archive, I discovered statements made by his mother, Mary Stephens, and her uncle, Benjamin Stephens, when she was originally applying for William to be accepted in the Hospital. These make sad reading. Mary was only 20 when her baby was born. For health reasons she had been staying in Ramsgate, Kent when she suffered an accident and fell into the harbour. A sailor called William Edwards came to her rescue and stopped her from drowning. It appears they kept up their acquaintance, even when she had returned to her uncle’s home on Blackfriars Road, Southwark, London.

William Edwards talked of marriage, but Mary’s uncle did not approve of the relationship and was sure that the sailor had given an incorrect name to Mary. Whether he was right or not we will never know, but in about April 1843 Mary discovered she was pregnant. Again the sailor said he would marry her – when he came back from sea – but she never saw or heard anything from him again.

Mary gave birth at home in Blackfriars Road and, according to her uncle, nobody else knew about the birth. He stated that Mary was a good needlewoman and that she and his wife took in sewing. He was a pork butcher, but his business was struggling. He stated that Mary had been living with him and his wife since her parents had died (he does not say when), that she was a good girl and that this was her first child.

The archival records show that William was born on 24 January 1844 and was baptised on 12 August 1844, the day he was received into the Hospital as Number 20253. He was immediately sent to a foster mother in the country, Mrs Elizabeth Sanders of Great Peckham. He returned to the Hospital to continue his education at about five years of age and next appears on a list of children being dispersed as apprentices. It states that William was sent in October 1858 to begin life as an Indentured Apprentice Whitesmith to John Strand of High Street, Wandsworth, who was a whitesmith and bell hanger. It states the term of apprenticeship was until 1865 and that he received 5 guineas from the Hospital when he completed it.

Married life

William and his future wife Ann must have travelled to Salford early in 1865 as they married on 18 April 1865 at St Paul’s Church, Pendelton. They gave their residence as Ellor Street, Pendleton, which was the home of Ann’s mother. Electoral Rolls show that they spent the next 58 years living at 8 Morpeth Terrace, Salford. On the death of Ann in July 1923, William went to live with his married daughter Annie until his own death on 16 July 1928. Both William and Ann died of advanced age and are buried in Weaste Cemetery, Salford.

During their marriage they had six children. Elizabeth, born 1866, was my great grandmother. William, born 1868, emigrated to Australia as a young man. Frederick was born and died in 1871. Mary, born 1872, joined The Daughters of the Cross of Liege, became Sister Magdalen, and lived her life in County Tyrone, Ireland. Annie was born in 1875 and Henry in 1878. As far as I am aware, none of William and Ann’s children had any knowledge of their father’s beginnings. In fact, Sister Magdalen always thought that she was closely related to poet Robert Browning.

William spent his life as a whitesmith and his death certificate records him as being a journeyman locksmith. According to his will, he had shares in both the Pendleton Co-operative Society and the Co-operative Wholesale Bank. He would appear to have led a successful and happy life.

However, this is not where my story of William ends.

A final piece of the puzzle

From the records I now have from the Foundling Hospital Archive, I realised that I knew his date of birth, place of birth, mother’s name, and probable father’s name. This got me wondering if there was any chance that his birth had been registered prior to arrival at the Hospital. Thanks to various genealogical websites, I was able check birth registrations for 1844 to see if there were any with a mother’s surname of Stephens. There was just one possible entry; so I took a gamble and sent off for a copy of the certificate. When it arrived it was a ‘eureka’ moment – I had struck lucky.

When registering the birth, Mary had slightly swapped the information around, probably to make it look as if she was a married woman, but everything was there to match the information she had given to the Foundling Hospital’s inspector. She had registered her baby with the Christian names William Edward, the reported names of the father. In the column for father’s name, she had combined his surname and her own surname. Now, almost 180 years to the day, thanks to Mary’s foresight, I have been able to re-unite mother and son once more.


Foundling Hospital Archive

Petitions Admitted: A/FH/A/08/001/002/053/028/a1-c3

General Register: A/FH/A/09/002/005/316

Baptism Register: A/FH/A/14/004/002/029

Apprenticeship Register: A/FH/A/12/003/003/072