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 19th century. 

John Brownlow was Foundling number 18,607, and the son of Mary Goodacre. He was baptised at the Foundling Hospital on 9 August 1800.

In 1814, he was employed as a clerk in the Secretary’s office, and spent the rest of his working life with the Foundling Hospital. His experiences as a foundling pupil and of the staff gave him a unique insight into the Hospital and into wider issues affecting the lives of children in 19th-century England.

The Foundling Hospital archives include records of his working life and promotions: in June 1828, he became Treasurer’s Clerk, with an annual salary of £84, and was permitted to live outside the grounds. The same year, he married Johanna Parker. At Christmas, his salary was increased to £100gns (£105).

Brownlow’s written legacy

Brownlow wrote several books. The first, Hans Sloane: A Tale illustrating the history of the Foundling Hospital, was typical fictional melodrama but also includes a defence of the institution against criticism that it encouraged parents to neglect their children, and unmarried women to become prostitutes. He was an innovator. In 1839, Brownlow researched and wrote a detailed report on the running of the Foundling Hospital and other similar institutions for children in London.

His other published works include Thoughts and Suggestions having reference to Infanticide and The History and Objects of The Foundling Hospital (1865), which included reports on daily life, the education and health of the foundlings, and details on their lives afterwards as apprentices.

Famous friends

Charles Dickens, who lived near by, knew him well, and possibly modelled the fictional character of John Brownlow in Oliver Twist on him. We know that Dickens’ essay about the institution, ‘Received A Blank Child’, drew on Brownlow’s own account of life there.

By 1844, John Brownlow was the Foundling Hospital’s Steward. In addition to his salary and steward duties, he collected the pew rents and supervised the Chapel on Sundays; he made enquiries into the petitions submitted by mothers applying to have their children taken into the Hospital; and into applications from those who wanted to take apprentices from the Foundling Hospital.

Around this time, he staged an exhibition to promote the work and history of the Foundling Hospital. This exhibition has proved controversial from an historical viewpoint, because of its display of tokens left by mothers. Brownlow removed these tokens from the Hospital’s billet books making it impossible to match the tokens to the mothers who left them.

Stepping up at the Foundling Hospital

When the Foundling Hospital’s Treasurer, Morris Livesley, died in the cholera epidemic of 1849, the Governors voted unanimously for Brownlow to take on the role. At his suggestion, a Boys’ Band was formed, and a later history describes him as ‘indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of the Benevolent Fund and Savings Bank for ex-Foundlings’.

In 1871, Brownlow retired and was given an annual pension of £460. He died 18 months months later, and the Governors commissioned a memorial tablet to him to be placed in the Foundling Hospital Chapel. It tells us much about the continuing stigma of being a Foundling that his widow wrote asking that the proposed inscription be changed: ‘I think it unnecessary to tell my grandchildren that their dear & honoured Grandfather was brought up at the Foundling Hospital […] Would it not answer better to say that he served the Hospital or Governors faithfully over 50 years?’