- Objects of Charity”: Petitions to the London Foundling Hospital, 1768–72
England was peculiar among the leading European countries of the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in not having a major hospital devoted to the care of abandoned babies and young children. By 1700, many other countries had such a facility, usually established in their principal cities: institutions of this sort were to be found in Amsterdam, Paris, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, and Venice. Although London had Christ’s Hospital, founded in the reign of Edward VI, an institution that in the first half-century of its existence admitted some foundling children, it soon transformed itself into a refuge and school for the legitimate offspring of freemen of the city of London. By the late seventeenth century, the Hospital had a notice posted near its gates, stating “These are to certify that no child or children who are dropped in Christ’s Hospital can receive any benefit from thence.” 1 The establishment of a true foundling hospital was impeded by hostility to bastard-bearers, and by Tudor poor laws that vested responsibility for the nurture of abandoned babies and children in the parishes in which they were found. 2
While the need or desire to abandon children might be ubiquitous in early modern England, the opportunities to do so were limited in the villages and small towns in which the majority of people lived. In such communities, neighbors [End Page 497] knew who was pregnant, who had obviously recently given birth, and who now had no child clinging to them. Strange women traveling with a baby were likely to be watched particularly closely. If a baby was dropped and subsequently found, searches could quickly be mounted to find the culprit, who, traveling on foot and perhaps weak or exhausted, was unlikely to have got very far. Parishes in rural England do not appear, therefore, to have had to deal with more than the very occasional case of child abandonment. The problem was always likely to have been a big-town one. But, London apart, throughout much of the early modern period, England had no large towns. In 1700 there were only two provincial towns with populations in excess of 20,000 inhabitants, and recent investigations would suggest that neither Bristol nor Norwich suffered greatly from this problem. 3 This was very unlike the situation in London, where it has been suggested that by the later seventeenth century perhaps a thousand babies a year were being dumped on the streets. 4
This concentration of abandonment on the metropolis is part of the background of events leading to the eventual establishment of a foundling hospital in the first half of the eighteenth century. Although Thomas Coram’s efforts began early in the 1720s, it was not until 1739 that his proposed venture received its royal charter, and it was not until 1741 that his Foundling Hospital began to receive its first children. In its initial phase of existence from 1741 to March 1756, when it was dependent solely on private charitable donations, the Foundling Hospital was able to accept fewer than 1,400 children and had to refuse entry to perhaps twice as many others. 5 Appalled by the numbers they had to turn away, the Governors of the Hospital sought and secured government funding. Funds were granted to them on condition that they “receive into the said Hospital all Children, under a certain Age...who shall be brought to the said Hospital after the First Day of June and before the 31st Day of December 1756.” Aided by further grants of this sort, the hospital pursued what was effectively an open-door policy. In this era of “General Reception,” which lasted until March 1760, nearly 15,000 babies and very young children passed into its care.
Modern historiography has concentrated largely on Thomas Coram’s early struggles to establish such an institution, on his eventual success, on the era of controlled admissions before 1756, and, above all, on the extraordinary experiences of the years of General Reception from 1756 to 1760 when babies poured in at wholly unexpected rates, and when, as a consequence, they died in alarming...