In the last of my blog series, I visit the archives one last time to tell the story of four girls.

As a volunteer transcriber for the Voices Through Time: The Story of Care project, I have been delving into the stories Foundling Pupils via the infirmary records that we are digitising. In my first blog, I recounted the stories of three young boys that may have had to experience surgery in a pre-anaesthetic world. In my second blog, I looked at long term health challenges. Today, I uncover the challenges of smallpox in the 18th century, and find that for some pupils, full recovery was possible.

In search of safe inoculation – Mary Glass, Beatrice Ogle, Mary Hale

The Infirmary had a busy Christmas Day in 1762, with 15 patients suffering from an outbreak of smallpox at the Foundling Hospital. They had another outbreak in February 1766, this time amounting to 14 cases, including three who had caught it from inoculation; Mary Glass, Beatrice Ogle, and Mary Hale were ‘sick [with smallpox] two days after inoculation’.

This data was in fact better than what had happened in April 1763, when 20 children became ill from smallpox as a direct result of inoculation.

Clearly smallpox was continually on the minds of the governors and hospital matrons, whether or not they were dealing with an outbreak at the time.

Smallpox was one of the most feared diseases of its day, and the Foundling governors were keenly aware of itwhenever it made its appearance among the children. Although not highly contagious, when it did infect a person, it was likely to stay. Blindness, infertility, and serious disfigurements were often the result. Across England at this time, the majority of those who died from smallpox were in fact children (72% of children who caught smallpox died from it, as opposed to 10% among adults[1]). It flourished and spread in cramped living quarters, especially wherever children were accommodated together.

Before Jenner’s groundbreaking smallpox vaccination of 1796, inoculation at the time of Mary Glass, Beatrice Ogle, and Mary Hale consisted of what we now call variolation.

In fact, Edward Jenner (b.1749, thus of a similar age to some of the children in these records) was himself inoculated by variolation as a child in Gloucestershire, using the very method which he later improved upon.[2]

Variolation is thought to have been used in 10th century China and India, and came to Europe via the Ottoman Empire. It involved inserting a small amount of infected matter (smallpox fluid from postules or powdered scabs) into superficial cuts made in the arms of a healthy individual, who would then contract a mild form of smallpox, ensuring lifelong immunity. Variolated individuals had a 0.5% chance of mortality, but were infectious and could pass it on to others as easily as someone who had contracted smallpox. Until Jenner substituted a strain of cowpox (a milder relative virus) in place of smallpox in the inoculation process, the risks taken to inoculate children were very high indeed.

In the eyes of the Infirmary staff, sometimes these risks were worth taking. And as our last account shows, there were plenty of cases where the children did improve in the end.

The hope of a full recovery – Cath Field

The accounts that can be traced through the records are full of unpredictable outcomes.

In the case of Cath Field, hers is one that apparently ended in full recovery. In December 1762, she was suffering sorely from ‘universal rigidity’, but within two months had improved and was now only ‘partially rigid’ (February 1763). As there is no account of any long-term treatment other than continual supervision of her malady in the Infirmary (until she eventually disappears from their records), it appears that her natural energy and vitality as a child, nurtured by the Hospital’s staff, came out strongest in the end.

The fact that each young patient had their specific symptoms and treatments noted, sometimes on a weekly basis, testifies to how precise, concerned, and attentive the team of Infirmary guardians and apothecaries must have been.

Surely these children were in some of the safest hands to be found in Georgian London!

Finding life in the archives

The Foundling Hospital was a hub of children going through all kinds of experiences and stages of health and illnesses – some with common childhood ailments (like fever or sore heads) and others undergoing more life-changing events (tumors, smallpox, amputations, etc.)

As you read through and transcribe the records, you wonder, imagine, feel for these children and how they themselves coped with these illnesses. The dates and recurring names help us to understand something more of what lies behind the informational gaps, the narratives between the lines…

There is something of the reality, the uncertainty, the immediacy of life in these records: from day to day, we can never really know who, what, or why certain things befall us. And as a volunteer transcriber, I never know just how much I will discover from day to day.

[1] ‘Smallpox and the Story of Vaccination’. Accessed from
[2] Caroline of Ansbach, wife of King George II, had also inoculated three of her children by the same method around 1721 – Amelia, Caroline, and Frederick, Prince of Wales.