This blog is part of our #RealStoriesOfCare series. It tells the story of Hannah, who was a pupil at the Foundling Hospital, England’s first dedicated children’s charity, in the 19th century. 

The experiences of Foundling pupils can often make for difficult reading.

Although the Governors and Trustees at the time thought they were doing the right thing, the regime the pupils lived under seems harsh, particularly given what we now know about what is important in the emotional as well as physical development of children.

This was also the experience of other school children in the Victorian period, although the Foundling pupils had the added element of stigma and shame associated with society’s view of ‘illegitimacy’ at that time.

Hannah’s story uncovers some uncomfortable truths about her upbringing: while there were moments of happiness, much of institutionalised life could be very difficult.

Publishing her story

Hannah Brown was brought to the Foundling Hospital in 1866. She left in 1881 and wrote a ‘The Child She Bare’, an anonymous account of her childhood experiences which she published anonymously as ‘A Foundling’.

She said she wrote about her life and upbringing because she wanted to expose the system of care. She said she thought ‘it was a system that allows and tends to encourage unmarried mothers to abandon their offspring and give up all claim to them, which results in grievous wrong towards innocent children.’

The book details her happy early life with her foster mother and how that changed when at the age of three, she was suddenly brought to the Foundling Hospital.

Concerns about the effects of institutional, as opposed to family-based, care for children grew in the nineteenth century and Hannah Brown’s book gave a rare insight from the viewpoint of a child growing up in such an environment.

The shock of the institution

She described the shock of coming from her foster home to a harsh and regimented life in the institution which punished individualism. As a result, Hannah wrote, she

‘sank into the nonentity which the child who enters a Pauper Institution is bound to become.’

At the age of nine, Hannah Brown was chosen by hospital staff to be a maid. This made her life more comfortable, as she could now use the teachers’ room and could stay inside when, regardless of the weather, the other children were sent out into the playground.

Musical memories

Hannah remembers her time in the choir, attended by children three times a week, with happiness.

‘What happiness we enjoyed in this institution was chiefly centred around the grand music, and the organist, whom it was our greatest pleasure to please.’

Hannah was delighted to receive a signed photo that the organist gave her and she remembers he treated the Foundling Pupils like any other children.

Other highlights of her later days at school were annual visits to a governor’s home, where there was space to run and cakes for tea, and visits to Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle organised for the older girls by the chaplain.

Life out in the world

She served an apprenticeship as a domestic servant and found her employers pleasant, but the work was very hard and others treated her badly.

Hannah Brown returned to the Foundling Hospital, although it is unclear why. Foundling Pupils sometimes returned for a ceremony to mark successful completion of their apprenticeship. Most of the children were apprenticed locally and apart from their foster mothers, who lived outside London, the Hospital was the nearest they had to a parental home so she also may have returned on an informal visit.

During her return, her former teacher was unkind to her and, she concluded,

‘This is how the tragedy goes on in regard to the lives of these “unwanted children” without a mother, friend or relative in the world. They are forced to submit to all the injustices and degradations which arise when they are thrown into the hands of complete strangers.’

Grappling with identity

Hannah concluded that care such as that given by the Foundling Hospital represented a system which could never work; it meant children were deprived of their mothers twice – once at birth and then when they were taken from their foster mothers. Worse, instead of a loving family and people who cared, the institution blighted children for life by repeatedly emphasising the shame and humiliation it insisted they should feel for a wrong they had never committed.

As Gillian Pugh, former Chief Executive of Coram (Family), reflects in her book ‘London’s Forgotten Children, Thomas Coram and The Foundling Children’:

“…however well run the Hospital was, and however well the children were cared for, for children such as Hannah Brown there was no escaping the ‘loss of two mothers’ and the stigma and shame of illegitimacy – there was no emotional support and no goodnight kiss”.

At the turn of the 20th century, institutional care such as that experienced by Hannah began to change. By the mid 20th century, institutional care came to an end at the Foundling Hospital as the charity adapted to provide support for children in other ways.