This blog is part of our #RealStoriesOfCare series. It tells the story of Mary, who was a pupil at the Foundling Hospital, England’s first dedicated children’s charity, in the 18th century.
On the 8 February 1752, 95 women entered the newly built London Foundling Hospital, hoping their child would be admitted and cared for. A lottery determined the fate of the infants they carried and with only twenty spaces available the stakes were high. Of the children that were admitted one was a girl who became child number 898, and baptised Mary Oxford the very next day. Like all the children, she spent her first four or five years with a country nurse before returning to the Hospital. Unlike most of the other children though, Mary Oxford never left the building after that.
From Foundling Pupil to member of staff
In November 1767, Mary was one of eight girls and one boy recorded as being ‘undisposed of’. She was noted to have ‘blemish in eye’ which perhaps caused problems with her sight, making it difficult for her to work outside the Hospital. By July 1771 it was noted that she was a very useful servant helping Mrs Freeman, the girls’ mistress, and merited wages of £5 per year. Though this does not sound much today, this was a normal sum paid to nurses at the Hospital at that time. In addition, she would not have paid for bed and board at the Hospital.
The records of Mary’s wages at the Hospital tell us something else that is interesting – they show that Mary learned to write when she was about 28 years old. We know this because every time someone was given their money they had to sign their name or make their mark. For nine years Mary would write a cross, and another servant countersigned to confirm she had received the correct amount. But from June 1780 Mary began to sign her own name. We do not know who taught her but to learn so late suggests it was something that she wanted to do.
Teaching the children
By 1790 Mary was recorded as the mistress of ward number two. We have some idea of the work Mary would do in this role as it is laid out in the regulations of the Hospital. She would be expected to teach the girls of her ward to sew, knit and spin. Sewing was important for two reasons at the Hospital – it was a useful skill by which girls could earn a living, but it was also a way for the institution to make some income. People would come to the Hospital to buy shirts and caps, or have initials stitched onto their linen. Though the amounts were small, it allowed people to show their support for the Hospital and the institution to prove the abilities of the girls in its care.
Mistresses were also responsible for teaching children their prayers and how to behave with ‘decency and modesty’. They would ensure children got out of bed at the allotted time – 5am in the summer, 7am in the winter, and be in bed by 9pm. They also ensured the children had their meals at the appropriate times. The mistress would make sure that not only the children and their clothing were clean and neat but also the ward itself. Each mistress had a maid servant to help her keep everything in order.
Despite these rules and regulations, things did not always go to plan. In 1790 there was a report by the matron complaining of a lack of respect from some of her staff and Mary Oxford, now 38 years of age, was singled out for disobeying orders. Although the records are not clear, it seems as if Mary was careless when emptying the chamber pots and disturbing matron. She accepted she was in the wrong but also commented that she was very busy. She was reminded that the matron must not be argued with.
Our last record for Mary is in 1813 when a record is made of her burial at the old church of St Pancras. She was 61 years old and still living at the Hospital when she died.