Blog and News

‘For I shall never be easey till I know the truth of my dear son’: The Forgotten Experiences of London Foundling Hospital Mothers – Ellie Gregory

Dedicated to Mary Philomena Collins, and every mother in history who has experienced the pain of being separated from their child.

The London Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram for the ‘maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’. Coram founded the institution after he was ‘outraged by the number of unaccompanied children he saw on London’s streets’, resolving to ‘provide the capital’s abandoned youngsters with a moral upbringing’.[1] During its two centuries of operation, it was home to twenty-seven thousand children. It continues today as the children’s charity Coram.

The hospital has many stories attached to it, and most historiography focuses on the stories of how the institution was run, and the day-to-day lives of the Foundlings, reflecting the social outrage at neglected children. As a result, the stories of mothers separated from their children have been severely neglected. Recent historiography has become more aware of this, with work being done to reveal more about the origins of Foundling children. However, there is still a significant gap in the historiography surrounding mothers of the latter half of the eighteenth-century. My research seeks to address this gap by uncovering the voices and experiences of a generation of women who dealt with the pain of being separated from their children, using petitions, depositions, examinations, and Foundling Hospital correspondence.

Between 1760 and 1800, the hospital only took in around two thousand children and, as a result, this period has had very limited interest from historians.[2] It could be assumed that this lack of interest is due to limited archival material, however my own research conducted in the London Metropolitan Archives challenges this assumption. In 1999, the historian R. B. Outhwaite highlighted an ‘unbroken series’ of thousands of petitions from 1768 by women hoping to leave an infant at the hospital.[3] The minimal amount of work on this period, despite the abundance of archival material, can instead be better explained by historians not yet giving the stories of these women the attention they deserve.

In 1758, a mother wrote to the Hospital about her ‘unhappy case’. She described what her baby was wearing when he arrived at the Foundling Hospital, and even what blanket he was wrapped in.[4] In the letter, the mother also expresses her desperation, saying that she has written to her brother who will shortly be arriving at the Hospital on her behalf. She ends her letter writing, ‘for I shall never be easey till I know the truth or can hear of my Dear Babeyy son’. The profound, even overwhelming, need that this mother has to find out what has become of her son is more than evident in this letter. The detailed description of the child and the impending arrival of the child’s uncle is testament to how important an update on the child’s wellbeing was to the mother. The poor standard of English in which this letter is written indicates that this woman was not highly educated, further speaking to the lengths to which she was willing to go in order to know whether her baby was safe and well.

Although the Foundling Hospital was established with good intent, the existence of such an institution caused widespread, awful distress for many mothers who never even approached the hospital themselves. Many children were forcibly taken from their mothers without their consent. One of the most distressing and heart-rending cases is that of Sarah Gay.[5] Sarah gave birth to a ‘male bastard child’ on 9th August 1758. William Robinson, the father of the child, declared in October 1758 that he and the beadle of Croydon ‘had a special warrant to take Gay’s child from her’. Sarah refused to give Robinson the child, keeping him ‘naked and undressed in order to avoid their taking it away’. One of the other men present, John Woodger, held down Sarah’s arms ‘whilst Robinson in a forceable manner took the said child from her breast’. Sarah herself recalled that ‘she was so greatly frighted by the said threats and assaults that she immediately fell into fits’.

The similarly harrowing deposition of Mary Curral in 1759 illustrates the cruelty that was shown to mothers because of the Foundling Hospital.[6] Mary Curral was married and lived in Stephenage, Hertford. Curral recounted how ‘she was delivered of Thursday last twin children one of which is dead’. Edward Anthony and Thomas Williams, the constable of Stephenage, ‘broke open the house’ of Mary’s mother, ‘broke two doors to get at the child’ and ‘did forceably take away the said child […] this deponent believes they caused the said child to be carried to the Foundling Hospital’. Not only was Mary grieving the death of one of her twin children, but her surviving child was stolen from her in an extremely violent and disturbing manner.

Although rare, there are cases of children being reclaimed by their mothers. The claiming petition of Jane Bunting from 1782 states, ‘your petitioner is the mother of a male child, delivered and received into this hospital on the 5th day of August 1770’.[7] The inclusion of dates tells us that this mother started the reclamation process twelve years after giving up her child to the Foundling Hospital, speaking to how the hope of reuniting with their child never disappeared for many mothers. The piece of paper this petition was written on had the following scribbled on it, clearly from a later date: ‘petition of Jane Bunting claiming a male child. Boy found alive’.

The name of every woman in this article, and the thousands more within the archives, represents something far bigger than one woman submitting a petition or deposition. These women were courageous, strong, and all would have had their own individual struggles surrounding the separation. Some may have gone on to reunite with their children, and some may have passed away before they ever had the chance, with the date of their child’s birth being the only connection they ever had to their child. Unfortunately, this is not something that any historian will be able to know. Most of these women will only be recorded by name in the Foundling Hospital archives; many will not have left any other record of their lives for us to see. It is my hope that making them the sole focus in this piece will serve as a starting point to making amends for the disservice done to these women.

Ellie Gregory is an MA History Student at Cardiff University. Her research interests include early modern and modern British women’s history, with a focus on motherhood.

[1] Adrian Wilson, ‘Illegitimacy and its implications in mid-eighteenth-century London: the evidence of the Foundling Hospital’, Continuity and Change, 4:1 (1989), p. 104, Claire Phillips, ‘Child Abandonment in England, 1741-1834: The Case of the London Foundling Hospital’, Genealogy, 3:3 (2019), p. 2.

[2] R. B. Outhwaite, ‘” Objects of Charity”: Petitions to the London Foundling Hospital, 1768-72’, Eighteenth- Century Studies, 32:4 (1999), p. 498.

[3] Ibid, p. 499.

[4] London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Letter from mother trying to find out about her child, 1758, A/FH/A/06/001/011/032.

[5] LMA, John Heathfield & Surrey Quarter Sessions, A/FH/A/06/001/011/017.

[6] LMA, Deposition of Mary Curral, 1759, A/FH/M/01/005/071-076.

[7] LMA, Claiming petition of Jane Bunting, 1782, A/FH/A/12/001/021.