Foundlings and the Foundling Hospital

‘Foundling’ is an historic term applied to children, usually babies, that have been abandoned by parents and discovered and cared for by others.

Abandoned children were not unusual in the eighteenth century when the Foundling Hospital was established. Unlike mainland Europe where Catholic-run institutions had been caring for orphans and foundlings from as early as the thirteenth century, the UK relied on the Poor Law to cater for needy families at a parish level. The only charitable establishment that received foundlings as well as orphans was London’s Christ’s Hospital founded in 1552. However, by 1676 illegitimate children were prohibited.

By the early 1700s the situation for struggling parents was particularly acute in London. Economic migration from the countryside had led to a population explosion, which put parish-based poor relief under immense strain. Mothers unable to care for their children as a result of poverty or illegitimacy had few options, leading to some abandoning their babies on doorsteps, outside churches and even on rubbish heaps. It is estimated that around a thousand babies a year were abandoned in London alone. This was the situation that confronted Thomas Coram on his return from America in 1704. It would take Coram seventeen years of dogged campaigning before he finally received a Royal Charter, enabling him to establish a Foundling Hospital ‘for the care and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’.

However, the term ‘foundling’ is a misnomer in relation to the Foundling Hospital, for although its criteria and process of admission changed over the centuries, mothers were required to hand over their child in person. There were only two exceptions to this rule. The first was during a brief period known as General Reception which lasted from 1756 – 1760. In return for State support the Hospital was required to admit every baby brought to its doors, and to this end a basket was hung at the gates to enable babies to be left anonymously. General Reception led to soaring mortality rates and baby trafficking, and it would take the Hospital many years to stabilize following this brief but calamitous change of policy. The other exception applied to babies who came with a donation of £100 which guaranteed a place on a ‘no questions asked’ basis. This scheme ran from 1756 to 1801, during which time approximately 75 babies were admitted in this way.

Today, access to contraception, State support for families on low income, and changed attitudes towards illegitimacy mean that child abandonment is very unusual in the UK. Although it is considered to be a serious crime in many countries, including the UK where it is illegal, a number of jurisdictions have made exceptions in the form of safe haven laws. These apply to babies left in designated places such as hospitals or ‘baby hatches’, which enable parents to safely and anonymously give up the care of their children. In a development that has been criticized by the United Nations, baby hatches have been reintroduced in Europe and also in China where an estimated 10,000 children are abandoned each year. In 2012 it was reported by The Guardian that in the course of a decade almost 200 baby hatches had been installed across Europe in countries as diverse as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic and Latvia. Meanwhile, in 2015 the BBC reported that the US state of Indiana also considered making the move to introduce baby boxes to prevent the deaths of abandoned infants. However, the United Nations has spoken out against this spread, warning that the practice “contravenes the right of the child to be known and cared for by his or her parents”.

Enquiries about former pupils

Records of former pupils of the Foundling Hospital admitted more than 110 years ago can be found at the London Metropolitan Archives. See their information sheet here. For enquiries about children admitted less than 110 years ago, please contact Coram at chances@coram.org.uk