Janette Bright looks at a petition for an apprenticeship gratuity, written by long-serving Foundling Hospital Matron Hannah Johnson, and what it reveals about her life and legacy.
While many records in Coram’s Foundling Hospital Archive relate to children and mothers, the lives of thousands of other individuals can be discovered there as well. This includes the Hospital staff, most of whom lived, as well as worked, at the institution for many years. The most senior female officer was the Matron, and one was Hannah Johnson.
Hannah Johnson (1760-1822) worked at the Foundling Hospital for 26 years (between 1793 and 1819). She was the longest serving Matron in the Hospital’s first 100 years. Although single, Hannah was generally known as Mrs Johnson. The title Mrs was, in the late eighteenth century, considered a title of respect and was often used for older, unmarried women.
This highlight from the collection is one of many notes that Mrs Johnson wrote on behalf of foundling girls who had applied for a gratuity following the successful completion of their apprenticeship. I chose this one, dated 25 January 1802, because it shows Matron doing a job that takes her away from the Hospital and into the city.
The role of a Hospital Matron
In the eighteenth century, the Hospital Matrons spent much of their working lives within the walls of the Hospital. They would organise and supervise the female servants, keep accounts, manage linen and provisions, and perhaps most important of all, ensure the children were safe and well. Matron had her own rooms in the Hospital and had no set hours of work. There is no doubt that she would get woken during the night if there was a major problem.
With the introduction of the gratuity payments in March 1800, Matron had an additional role. She would write reports about individual foundling girls who had left the Hospital – the schoolmaster did the same for the boys. This was because those who had successfully completed their apprenticeship were rewarded by the Hospital with a payment of up to five guineas – over £200 in today’s money. Children had to complete a petition and their master/mistress was expected to confirm the apprentice had been ‘sober, honest and diligent’. Matron then added her own report, which she obtained by speaking to the former master or mistress. With all this information, the Governors would decide if a former foundling would receive their reward, and how much. If successful, the gratuity was presented at a ceremony at the Hospital which made public the success of the charity to turn children into ‘useful citizens’.
Hannah Johnson has signed this note confirming that Elizabeth Anderson (foundling number 17502) was deserving of the payment. Elizabeth had not stayed with one master. In 1792, she was apprenticed to William Biddulph, a grocer and cheesemonger, who was one of many who lost his home and business in the Ratcliff Fire of July 1794. Now largely forgotten, this major event in the East of London caused the loss of 458 homes and 20 public buildings. Luckily for Elizabeth, she was transferred to Mrs McFayden of 64 High Holborn in London and remained there for the remainder of her term. The note tells us that she then entered the service of an unnamed family in Tower Hill. Although it does not say, Elizabeth was probably a domestic servant in all these employments.
Hannah Johnson’s time at the Hospital
It was not just the city where Matron checked up on foundlings in the Hospital’s care. She often went further afield. In August 1815, Mrs Johnson reported on a visit to Kent where there were 70 infant children – 60 ‘fine and healthy’, three in good health and seven others with various illnesses and disabilities.
Another event that occurred during Mrs Johnson’s time was the installation of new kitchen equipment for roasting, steaming and boiling. It was designed by the inventor Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), who went by the name of Count Rumford. On 27 September 1796 the Morning Chronicle published a transcription of the report made by Mrs Johnson, Matron. It said that the new equipment not only made cooking easier for the staff, but also significantly lowered consumption of fuel.
This was not the only time Mrs Johnson was named in the national press. She was referred to in April 1815 as receiving a clasp of diamond and turquoise stones from the Dowager Empress of Russia, who we might know as ‘Catherine the Great’. This gift was sent, so the Bury and Norwich Post tells us, as an acknowledgement of Mrs Johnson keeping the Hospital in excellent order and ensuring the good conduct of the children in what was described as a ‘noble institution’.
Death, family and legacy
Unfortunately, in January 1819, Mrs Johnson became too ill to continue working. We do not know what was wrong with her, but she was discharged. She was buried at the Foundling Hospital Chapel on 7 March 1822.
Information from her will allows us to build a picture of her family. She was originally from Devon, baptised at St Kerrian Church in Exeter on 12 September 1762. Her father William was a grocer in Exeter and her mother was named Martha. Her brother Benjamin was a surgeon. Hannah also had a sister Martha, who was widowed in 1799 when her husband, William Faddy, died at the Battle of the Nile in Egypt. It is likely that Hannah was fond of her nephews and nieces because there were foundlings named after them soon after her arrival at the Hospital – William Faddy (number 18198), Peter Faddy (number 18199) and Amelia Faddy (18265).
Through this highlight from the collection, what was once a name on a piece of paper becomes a real person. Hannah Johnson was one of many remarkable people who worked at the Foundling Hospital.
Discover more highlights of the collection in our dedicated blog area and follow #RealStoriesOfCare on social media for all the latest updates on the Voices Through Time project.
Morning Chronicle, 27 September 1796, London, issue 8413
The Bury and Norwich Post; Or Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridge or Ely Advertiser, 12 April 1815, Bury Saint Edmunds England, issue 1711
Will of Hannah Ley Johnson, (probate date 11 November 1823), Prerogative Court of Canterbury and Related Probate Jurisdictions: The National Archives; Kew, England
Will Registers; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1677, access online via Ancestry.co.uk
Foundling Hospital Collection
Petition for a gratuity, 1802, A/FH/A/12/007/003