The Foundling Hospital in London was the first home in London for abandoned children (‘hospital’ being used in its original sense of a ‘shelter for the needy’). The first children were admitted to a temporary house in Hatton Garden in 1741, then into the large and elegant Coram Fields building in Bloomsbury in 1744.
At first admissions were on a ‘no questions asked’ basis but before long the applications became too numerous and a lottery system had to be put in place. Mothers picked a ball from a bag, and the colour decided the future of their child: a white ball meant they were admitted, red led to the waiting list while a black ball meant they were rejected. Almost all the children admitted were less than a year old. They were first given a new name and then sent to a wet nurse’s in the country, before returning to the hospital for their education and eventually apprenticeship to a trade or domestic service. Well-off women would come to watch the lottery and view the pictures - the hospital became one of the most fashionable places in London to spend time.
The lottery system ended in 1756, when the House of Commons resolved that no children should be turned away and that funds should be publicly guaranteed. Collection points were set up across the country where children could be left anonymously. Within four years 14,934 children were brought to the hospital, and stricter admission rules were imposed: only illegitimate first children of unmarried women of good character.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau gave all five of his children to a foundling hospital so they wouldn’t interfere with his work.
Foundling hospitals were not an unqualified success - in Paris the figures indicate that foundlings comprised fully 36% of all births in the years 1817-20, and, typically, half died within three months of being admitted to the hospital. Many denounced the system of foundling hospitals as legalised infanticide; one suggested that foundling hospitals should put up a sign: 'Children killed at Government expense'. Coram’s hospital wasn’t perfect – so-called ‘Coram men’ would roam the city and countryside to collect and deposit children after extorting money or other favours from their desperate mothers – but it was as good an example of its type as existed, and it is estimated that up to a third of the admissions ended up going into apprenticeships.
Previously, the only alternative to abandonment were the ‘foundling wheels’ in some churches – devices where the baby could be placed anonymously, and deposited into the body of the church from the outside, rather like the cash deposit safes in a bank. These baby banks (illegal in Britain) are still used in Germany: babies can be left in a hole in the wall, anonymously, and mothers can be assured they will be looked after.
Around 50 babies are abandoned in the UK each year.
Foundlings were often left with an identifying trinket from their mother - such as verses, ribbons or shells.
The Foundling Hospital was founded by a merchant named Thomas Coram (c. 1688-1751) and enthusiastically supported by Hogarth (1697-1764) and Handel (1685-1759) amongst others; it quickly became London’s most popular charity. Hogarth donated many of his own works and persuaded Reynolds and Gainsborough to do likewise, so that the hospital became the first public art exhibition in the country. Its success led to the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768.
Handel gave annual fund-raising concerts and helped to fund the building of its chapel, donating the organ and conducting several performances of his Messiah there. He became a governor of the hospital in 1750. The Hospital has a significant collection of Handel’s stuff to this day including his will, a fair copy of ‘Messiah’ and ‘The Foundling Hospital Anthem’ which he wrote for the opening.
Baby banks exist in germany, babies can be left in a hole in the wall anonymously. Mothers know they will be looked after.
All children taken in as foundlings - even those whose names were known - were given entirely new identities.
A politician ought to be born a foundling and remain a bachelor.
Mr Brownlow in Oliver Twist was based on a real Mr Brownlow who was secretary of the Foundling Hospital for 58 years.