Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a view of the courtyard. Engraving by B. Cole, 1754 [after P. Fourdrinier, 1742]. © Wikimedia Commons.

What were conditions like for children in the care of the Foundling Hospital?

This lesson gives you the chance to look at primary sources from the Foundling Hospital which are held at The National Archives in Kew, London. The Hospital began in 1741 and although it is no longer open, the charitable work continues to this day under the Coram foundation.

The Foundling Hospital was started by Thomas Coram, a philanthropist who was appalled to see children and babies dying on London’s streets. The word ‘hospital’ implied the hospitality shown to children in their care, rather than a place for the sick. Mothers brought their babies to the Hospital, where they would be given a new name. However, mothers left a token with the hospital, such as a scrap of fabric or a coin, so that the child could be identified if the mother enquired about or wanted to claim the child. Examples of these can be seen in the online exhibition Threads of Feeling.

The first children were admitted in 1741. In 1745 their purpose built children’s home was opened in Bloomsbury, London, which at that time was surrounded by fields. By the early 19th century, the hospital mainly wanted to help illegitimate children: ‘the design of the founder… being twofold- to hide the shame of the mother, as well as to preserve the life of the child’ (CHAR 2/384). Children had to be under 12 months of age, and were admitted after the mother had been interviewed and deemed to fit the criteria set out by the hospital. Once they had been accepted, children were registered, and were sent to live with a ‘nurse’ or foster family in the country. When they reached four or five years of age, children were sent to live at the Foundling Hospital in London, where they received schooling until they were 15 years old, and then were apprenticed, usually to work in domestic or military service.

These documents come from the early 19th century, when the hospital was well established. Have a look at the sources below to find out about what it was like to be a child in the care of the Foundling Hospital in the late Georgian era.


Tasks

Extract from a handbook for staff of the Foundlings hospital. 

Questions

What does this show about how the hospital was run, in terms of the registration, organisation and the leaving of children at the hospital?

What was the first thing that that happened to the children when they were admitted?

What could mothers leave at the Hospital with their child?

Where did the children go after they had been registered?

What was the mother given by the Hospital?

How do you think a mother feel about leaving her child at the hospital?

How could the mother of a ‘foundling’ keep informed of how her child was?

Why would the Hospital need such a handbook?

Guidelines for how children were to be cared for whilst at the hospital, between the ages of five and fifteen.

Questions

What happened to children when they reached the age of five? What do you think this would have been like for them?

Were girls and boys treated equally at the Foundling Hospital? Why did they have these different duties?

How is this different to your experience of school?

How much time did children spend learning, playing or worshipping each week?

Children were kept separate for the purposes of their education. Why do you think this was?

Why was there so much emphasis on religion and attending church?

How did the hospital view the future for these children?

A plan of the hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.

Questions

Who do you think might have used the waiting rooms?

What provisions were made for the children to play?

Where did boys and girls eat?

Why do you think they had a chapel?

Why do you think the boys had a summer dining room?

What might the Sunday office have been used for?

A table listing the food and drink given to each child in a year.

Questions

Is there anything missing from this diet?

Does anything surprise you about the children’s diet?

How does this compare to modern day food?

Guidance given to Hospital staff on how to apprentice a child.

Questions

Why might the child’s parents be forbidden from knowing where their child was serving as an apprentice?

Why would the wife of the household be required to approve a child to be an apprentice?

Why were children not apprenticed to lodging houses?

When did children fully leave the care of the Foundling Hospital?

Why did the Hospital apprentice the children? What might have happened if the children weren’t apprenticed at all?


Teachers' notes

This lesson encourages students to think about what life was like for a child being cared for by the Foundling Hospital, by looking at original sources held at The National Archives. The Hospital was founded during a time of great social and political change, during which it became desirable for the wealthy and influential to be seen as philanthropic. To gain insight into this period, students may want to look at our document collection, Georgian Britain: age of modernity? , which includes three more documents on The Foundling Hospital. Teachers may wish to construct similar lessons on different Georgian topics.

This would be a useful resource for anyone studying the history of social care and development through time (KS3). It would also tie in with SHP Medicine Through Time module (also KS3) because of the Foundling Hospital’s role in children’s health.

Sources

All sources can be found under catalogue reference CHAR 2/384, which contains documents about the hospital dated between1817 and 1850. This lesson contains extracts from:

‘Regulations for managing the hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.’

‘Account of the Foundling Hospital in London, for the Maintenance and Education of exposed and deserted young children.’

‘Plan of the hospital.’


External links

FOUND, an exhibition at the Foundling museum until September 2016, examining the theme of ‘found’.

Coram and the Foundling Hospital, the story of the Hospital, told by the charity itself.

The Foundling Museum, London, explores the history of the Foundling Hospital.

Threads of Feeling, an online exhibition of 18th century textile tokens left with abandoned babies at the London Foundling Hospital.

Related resources

Georgian Britain: age of modernity? A collection of  56 documents from the era, including three documents relating to the Foundling Hospital.

Back to top