Despite living 14,500 kilometres away in Western Australia I have had the opportunity to join a team of dedicated volunteers transcribing (typing up the handwritten text in historical documents) for the ‘Voices Through Time: The Story of Care’ programme.
My involvement as a transcriber came about by pure serendipity. Although I grew up in England, I only became aware of the Foundling Hospital and its incredible wealth of archives during 2020. I knew nothing of its history nor the work of the present-day charitable organisation, Coram.
Since last October I have joined over 70 volunteers on the pilot phase of the project as we worked our way through digitised pages of the Foundling Hospital Infirmary records. These spanned the years from 1761 to 1766 and were uploaded for the pilot, to help us try out the transcribing task before it was made accessible to the public. Using the Zooniverse research platform each digitised image can be transcribed by following specific prompts. Along the way, we were helped by the Voices Through Time team to iron out technical glitches, and more importantly to answer the many questions that opened up from these pages from the past.
Finding the pieces of the puzzle
One of the aims of the project is to piece together the journey of certain Foundling pupils as they progress through the Hospital. The team shared a story of one Foundling pupil, Theodore Barrow. After they discovered a lead token in the archive bearing the number 15514 with its leather cord still attached, the historians found out that it belonged to a baby admitted to the Hospital in February 1760. He was three weeks old. A note accompanying the child stated his name as John Beard, born January 19 1760. At the Hospital baby John was renamed Theodore Barrow and sent to a wet nurse in Bedfordshire.
As John/Theodore’s story unfolded, I was inspired to search for John Beard and discovered a record for ‘John, son of Robert and Eliz Beard’ baptised on 3 February 1760 at St Giles in the Field, Holborn.
Was this John Beard, the same baby taken in by the Foundling Hospital and renamed Theodore Barrow? The dates are tantalisingly close but given that two parents are named in the baptismal record this is a puzzle still waiting to be unravelled.
Medical records tell a story
According to Theodore’s story he was returned to the Hospital in 1764 suffering from severe scald head (ringworm). Imagine my excitement whilst transcribing an Infirmary record for 20 July 1765 to see that there on the page was Theodore Barrow, being treated for Itch (scabies). Indeed, the poor boy must have been seriously afflicted with skin conditions as years later he was judged unfit for apprenticeship due to ‘scald head’ and returned yet again to the Hospital.
The Infirmary records that I have been transcribing were meticulously written out at the end of each week, recording the number, name and ailment of each child being treated. As I transcribed my way through the records, I negotiated the challenges of deciphering copperplate writing, learnt more about eighteenth century diseases and became familiar with obscure medical terms.
It soon became apparent that over time, certain names were, sadly, cropping up on a regular basis. For example, Catherine Field was admitted for lockjaw and partial and universal rigidity; Sarah Parker was admitted as paralytic many times; and Thomas Langton is recorded for scrophulous (probably a form of tuberculosis), tumour of the leg and amputation.
With each new transcription it became apparent that these records contained untold stories. Pages and pages of Foundling pupils were no longer just numbers and names in an online project, but real children whispering for their story to be heard across the centuries.
As the project continues with the transcribing of the General Registers and more archives are made available maybe these, and other Foundling pupil voices will be heard alongside that of Theodore Barrow’s.