1-7 May 2023 marked National Deaf Awareness Week. During its history, the Foundling Hospital admitted several D/deaf children and offered them the same level of education and care as their hearing peers. Many of these children appear in Coram’s Foundling Hospital Archive and their stories have been brought to light through our volunteer projects.
One of these incredible stories is that of Mary Elson, No. 1002, who was admitted in 1752.
Warning: Some of the historical language used in this article may be seen as offensive. Find out more about the historical language in our archive.
A handwritten letter attached to Mary’s billet sheet explains the circumstances of her admission. Her father was James Sutherland, who at the time was away in the East Indies. His wife had died while delivering Mary. As a result of James’ absence, there was no one to care for Mary.
The letter details that James wished for her to be christened ‘Ezabella’ and that upon ‘his return, if the Child be alive he will [relieve] … humain Charetey from thess Charge’. James never came to the Hospital to return and claim back his newborn child.
Mary was admitted on 7 October 1752 at 11.15am and was given the number 1002. She was just two weeks old.
Mary was baptised under her new name a day after her admission and sent southeast to Silchester in Hampshire, to be nursed shortly after. She returned to the Hospital age 5 in September 1757 but was then sent back to the nurse a year later due to her poor health.
It is unclear what was wrong with Mary. In the 1759 Sub-Committee Minutes she is listed with seven other children as being ‘sent into the Country for the Recovery of their Health’ (A/FH/A/03/005/003/196). In the 18th century, it was a common practice to send sick patients to the countryside as it was believed that the fresh air could cure a number of ailments.
In 1759, not long after she had returned to London, Mary was sent to the Ackworth branch hospital in Yorkshire, most likely as a result of the soaring number of admissions during the General Reception and overcrowding of the Foundling Hospital. She remained at Ackworth for the rest of her childhood before she was returned to the London Foundling Hospital in July 1773 aged 21, only a few months before the branch hospital closed.
The search for work
In the Sub-Committee Minutes of July 1769, the Governors had already identified Mary, as well as a number of other disabled children at Ackworth, as being ‘not likely to be Apprenticed’ due to their ‘defects and accidents’. For Mary, this was due to her D/deafness. These children had a variety of both learning and physical disabilities, all of which were believed to affect their ability to go into the manual work required of apprentices. As a result of this, many of the disabled children were kept at the Hospital until they could find some alternative means of employment, which was often at the Hospital itself.
There is no mention of Mary having an official job at the Hospital until June 1778, when the Minutes state that she was working in the kitchen. Less than a year later, it became clear that Mary was struggling in her job and was denied a ‘Living’ (a wage) from the Hospital as a result:
‘[Mary] can do anything very well, but is deaf & dumb, & of so bad a temper that at times it is dangerous & terrible to be in the House with her. She will often sleep in her Clothes. Quere, whether any proper mode of Punishment to deter her can be thought of & settled.’ – A/FH/A/03/005/014/162 Sub Committee Minutes, 20 May 1779
It is not stated what triggered Mary’s temper; however, when considering her circumstances, it is not hard to imagine why Mary may have been so frustrated at the Hospital. For many D/deaf people in the 18th century, there were many barriers to communication and no ‘official’ form of sign language until the establishment of Deaf schools, such as the Braidwood Academy and the London Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in the late 1700s. Such education was not available to D/deaf Foundlings, leaving them with few means of communication with both their peers and Hospital staff.
We can also see in the archive that Mary and many other disabled Foundlings are still referred to as ‘children’ well into their adulthood (Mary was 27 years old when those minutes were written). This combined with the way Mary’s behaviour is discussed suggests that Mary may have been infantilised due to her lack of verbal communication, even though she is still described as capable of doing her job. Both of these factors would understandably have led to a large degree of frustration in Mary and may have caused her ‘bad temper’.
A spark of hope
There seems to be no recorded improvement to her situation until she is 53 years old. In the minutes of 12 June 1805, she is not only recorded as have a fixed wage of £3 per annum (roughly £400 per year today) but is also given a guinea as a bonus for her good behaviour. The Sub-Committee minutes record that she received this bonus three more times over the next six years, showing that her improved behaviour continued. It is unclear what led to this shift in Mary, whether it was due to her continuing maturity or because she was finally being paid for her labour, but we can see that she was eventually recognised for the work she did at the Hospital.
Mary remained at the Foundling Hospital for the remainder of her life and in 1818, she was buried at St Pancras Parish Chapel aged 66.
Coram’s Foundling Hospital Archive:
A/FH/A/09/001/013/087 – Billet Books volume 13 page 87
A/FH/A/09/002/001/108 – General Register volume 1 page 108
A/FH/A/14/004/001/074 – Baptism Register volume 1 page 74
A/FH/A/03/005/003/196 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 3, 16th June 1759
A/FH/A/03/005/008/100 and 101 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 8, 3rd July 1769
A/FH/A/03/005/013/236 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 13, 20th June 1778
A/FH/A/03/005/014/162 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 14, 20th May 1779
A/FH/A/03/005/026/163 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 26, 12th June 1805
A/FH/A/03/005/026/334 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 26, 4th January 1806
A/FH/A/03/005/027/167 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 27, 3rd January 1807
A/FH/A/03/005/028/270 – Sub-Committee Minutes volume 28, 5th January 1811
London Metropolitan Archives:
London Metropolitan Archives; London, England; London Church of England Parish Registers; Reference Number: P90/PAN1/179 (Mary’s burial record)