Bex Passmore is a MA student reading Museum Cultures at Birkbeck University, London. Her areas of interest lie in eighteenth and nineteenth-century social history, and she is currently interning with the curatorial team at the Foundling Museum, the museum of the Foundling Hospital. The Foundling Museum explores the history of the UK’s first children’s charity and public art gallery, and its current art exhibition is FOUND, curated by Cornelia Parker. Follow Bex on Twitter @BexTheBat and the Foundling Museum @FoundlingMuseum
We cannot think of the word ‘orphan’ without the image of Victorian London springing to mind. Oliver Twist, perhaps history’s most famous orphan beyond Superman, is also one of the most famous Victorian protagonists in literature. The Victorian orphan is a stereotype, a grubby child begging in the street or shivering in a workhouse, left on doorsteps of churches and thrown into the Thames. The plight of the orphan in the Victorian age was a desperate, unhappy and dangerous one.
Before the Victorian age even began, however, Britain’s first children’s home opened its gates. The Foundling Hospital took in its first children in 1739, the result of a long-term labour of philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. But it was not strictly speaking, an orphanage. The children brought to the Hospital were not scooped off the street. Their mothers left them, willingly.
When the Foundling Hospital first opened in the eighteenth century, its mission was to open itself up to all children who needed it, not to give ‘Preference to any persons’. Horrified by the abandoned children he would see when walking the streets of London, Thomas Coram campaigned for seventeen years prior to King George II granting a Royal Charter in October 1739.
Unmarried women, knowing the alternative for their babies was the poorhouse or the river, were desperate for a place at the comparably gentle world of the Hospital. Even so, on the very first night of admissions, it was recorded that ‘the expressions of grief of the women whose children could not be admitted were scarcely more observable than those of some of the women who parted with the children’.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the demand for placement at the Hospital was overwhelming. By 1801, the Governors had implemented a strict petition policy, where only illegitimate babies were admitted, and only those whose mothers could prove that they were previously ‘respectable’ women.
The nineteenth-century obsession with ‘respectability’ is well known and well documented. The women who would now seek the charity of the Hospital were exclusively ‘fallen’. They would be subjected to a lengthy and humiliating petition process, which would explore and judge their character, history and circumstances. Jessica A. Sheetz-Nguyen notes in her book, Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital, that the Governors decision came down to ‘the mothers reputation by moral measures, to see if she met community standards for an impeccable reputation, with the exception of this one fall from grace’. With only a limited amount of places, and a strong Victorian sense of morality, the petition process was nothing if not thorough.
First, the mother had to obtain a petition form from the porter at the gate of the Hospital. This she must do herself, as the rules insisted that those ‘requesting a petition on behalf of the mother’ was strictly prohibited. Despite this first obstacle, ‘on average, 200 women per year found their way to the porters gate on Guilford Street’. This gave the institution its first opportunity to judge, as the porter would carefully assess the details of any woman who would come to request a form, noting her clothing, speech and manner. The form requested details of both the mother and the father, including the mother’s address, occupation, age, and the child’s date of birth and sex. The father’s details included his name, occupation, age and last known whereabouts. This ‘last known whereabouts’ was key, as the mother had to convince the committee that the father, with no hope of return, had abandoned her. If the petition form was accepted, then a hearing was arranged.
The hearing was an opportunity for the committee to put the mother on trial for her weakness. Sheetz-Nguyen writes of this trial: ‘the committee left no stone unturned in the investigation of the mother’s reputation’. Where had they met? Was he married? Did she know? Had he used force? Was she drugged? Had he given her money? When did he abandon her? Had he really abandoned her? Why didn’t she resist? Had she told him of her pregnancy? Had she told anybody? Would she be able to find steady employment once relived of the child? By the time the invasive examination was over, the governors ‘had to be assured of the quality of the petitioner’s character’. They must, above all else, be convinced that, if ‘relieved of the child’, she would be set ‘in the course of virtue’.
‘In the course of virtue’: the be all and end all for Victorian women. From a modern-day perspective, we can view the governor’s severe questions, rules and regulations as aggressive and intrusive. But it gave these women an opportunity to regain their former ‘virtue’, and re-enter society. Behind the tall gates of the Hospital and the prying questions of the Governors, there was a second chance for fallen women regaining their integrity, whilst simultaneously saving their babies. The children of the Foundling Hospital were not Victorian orphans: their mothers handed their children over with a keepsake, or token, in which lay a promise for their return. Their tokens sat in the billets books of the Hospital secretary: buttons, thimbles, rings, string, trinkets. The Hospital and its children patiently waited the return of their ‘respectable’ mothers: many waited in vain.
 The Foundling Museum, Wall Text, Introductory Gallery.
 The Foundling Museum.
 Jessica A. Sheetz-Nguyen, Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital (Continuum, 2012). p. 2.
 Sheetz-Nguyen, p. 74.
 Sheetz-Nguyen, p. 68.
 Sheetz-Nguyen, p. 65.
 ‘Foundling Hospital Petitions, Fifty-Year Survey, A/FH/A/06/15/7’, 1842, LMA.
 Sheetz-Nguyen, p. 65.
 ‘Foundling Hospital Petition Form Instructions, A/FH/A/06/15/7’, LMA.