This blog is part of our #RealStoriesOfCare series. It tells the story of John, who was a pupil at the Foundling Hospital, England’s first dedicated children’s charity, in the 18th century. 

On the 25 March 1741, the first children of the Foundling Hospital were admitted to the institution’s temporary home in Hatton Garden. John Bowles was one of the 30 children that were admitted that day, although then he was only known as child number five.

There was no object or note left with him so we do not know what he was originally called, or whether his mother was married or single. He was about one-month old, and was dressed in a piece of cloth marked with the letters ‘I’ and ‘A’, and a brown cloak.  If his mother had ever been able to reclaim him, then these were the items that he would have been identified by.

Baptism and move to Yorkshire

Four days later, he and the other children were baptised and he was given his name – John Bowles. Twenty-nine other children were christened on that day but only five others survived until they were old enough to be apprenticed.  John then, must have been a healthy infant.

After his baptism, and for the next four years, John lived with a nurse and her family, in Yorkshire.  When it was time to return to London in 1746, the first wing of the new Foundling Hospital had recently opened. During his time at the Hospital he would have witnessed the construction of the chapel and the second wing.

For his first year or two at the Hospital, John’s days would have consisted of play and learning to read. John would have learned his letters using a horn book – a piece of wood on to which a paper alphabet was pasted.  Eventually he would progress to words and longer passages of text. These would have been prayers and bible stories. The children would read out loud to one of the nurses as there was no schoolmaster during John’s time at the Hospital. Therefore, John would not have learned to write or do basic arithmetic. Indeed, many people believed what we would now consider a basic education as unsuitable for a charity child.

The reality of a Foundling child

From the age of six, John would have been considered old enough to start work.  Boys were expected to work outside – undertaking tasks such as digging the garden or pumping water. The Governors believed this would get the pupils into the habit of labour but also build up their strength ready for work on land or at sea. John would also be taught, as soon as he was able, to mend his own stockings – looking neat and tidy was also important at the Hospital.

Life at the Hospital was very routine. All the boys wore the same uniform. Food was meagre and plain – consisting mainly of porridge for breakfast, meat or potatoes for dinner, and bread (sometimes with cheese), for supper. Only on Charter Day (17 October), did the monotony of their meals change. Not only was this a holiday with no work for a day, but the children were given roast beef and plum pudding for their dinner.

Sent to work

At just 10 years old, John was the first boy apprenticed from the Hospital in 1751. His master was Stephen Beckingham, a lawyer and one of the Hospital Governors. The records show that John was taken to Barham, Kent. The Beckinghams lived in Bourne Place, a grand mansion that still exists today as Bourne Park House.

It is not known what work John would have been employed in there, but he would have either been a house servant or working in the extensive grounds. Unfortunately, his master died just four years later, and it is not known what happened to John after this – he would still have been considered an apprentice and the Hospital was still responsible for his future.

John might have stayed at Bourne Place, which was inherited by Stephen Beckingham Jnr, his original master’s son, and later leased to Sir Horatio Mann – both of whom were also Governors of the Foundling Hospital.  As supporters of the institution, they would probably have boasted of the fact that they employed a Foundling, rescued from the streets of London, and trained to be a useful member of society.

In 1764 Bourne Place was the home of the young Mozart and his family for a short time, and John may have been present then. However, it is equally likely that he had moved on, and perhaps married.

While it is true John Bowles would have led a very dull and quite harsh existence at the Foundling Hospital, compared with those children in the workhouses or those who remained on the streets with their families, he did well.  As for his mother, nothing is known of her.  She took a chance leaving her child at what was then a totally new type of institution in England.  She must have decided that it could provide for her child when she could not.  I would like to think she would have been quite proud to know that her son ended up in a grand house in the Kent countryside.