Director Caro Howell on the Foundling Hospital Petitions

Director Caro Howell on the Foundling Hospital Petitions

With The Fallen Woman opening next week, we are excited to exhibit previously undisplayed documents from the Foundling Hospital’s nineteenth century archive.

This exhibition has provided an opportunity for new research into the Hospital’s nineteenth-century records which, unlike their eighteenth-century counterparts, remain largely unexplored. The archive documents lay bare the Hospital’s admissions process in Victorian times. Principal among them are the petitions, which were pre-printed forms that a mother had to complete if she wanted the Foundling Hospital to consider her baby for admission. The petitions were the first step in a very thorough investigative process that was designed to determine both the circumstances behind her baby’s birth and the mother’s moral character.

The petitions were the result of a change in the Hospital’s admissions policy in the early nineteenth century.  Whereas previously children were admitted for many reasons, including poverty and the death of parents, now only illegitimate children were accepted.  However illegitimacy on its own was not enough. Children had to be the first child of a previously respectable woman.  In other words their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman, someone who had lost her position in society as a result of sex outside marriage.

In the face of overwhelming demand for limited places, the Hospital saw their new admissions policy as having a ‘double benefit’; a chance to rescue the mother from a life of certain destitution as well as the child.  Minutes from a meeting of 1807 reveal the Hospital’s rationale: “…in addition to the protection of the Child, they [the Hospital Governors] had an opportunity of saving the Mother from shame, and of enabling her to return to her proper Situation in life”.  Some years later Charles Dickens in his 1853 article, ‘Received, A Blank Child’, confirmed that “preference is given to cases in which some promise of marriage has been made to the mother, or some other deception practiced upon her.” So determining the mother’s moral character became central to the admissions process. Not only did she have to prove that her baby was illegitimate, she also had to demonstrate that she had “borne a good character previous to her misfortune or delivery”.

The petition provided detailed personal information, including the name and occupation of the father and the last time the petitioner had seen him. This was then supplemented by a supporting statement which described the circumstances that led to the woman becoming pregnant. These statements are the closest thing we have to the mother’s story told in her own words, even when transcribed by a third party.  They provide us with an immediate and powerful sense of the situation faced by many Victorian women who became pregnant outside marriage. Harriet Hooper, whose child was accepted in 1865 writes:

“In April he took me to a house in the New North Road stating that he would introduce me to a friend who had a piano forte [which] would have been of use to me in singing – I found however there was no pianoforte but a bed”

Many petitions make difficult reading.  Women speak of broken promises of marriage, lack of consent, violence and uncaring fathers. Annie Culver, whose child was admitted, wrote:

“When pregnant I told him and he slighted me and told me to drown myself and that he would help me to do it. He did not deny the paternity”

Suicide is also mentioned. Susan Farquar writes “my first thought was self destruction, this I attempted twice but was miraculously prevented.”

The exhibition’s curator, Professor Lynda Nead, is alert to the challenges these narratives present in terms of distinguishing between the women’s experiences and their attempts to conform to the Hospital’s strict moral codes. ‘It is clear that the mothers who applied to the Hospital knew about its admissions criteria; they knew that they had to tell their stories according to prevailing assumptions about guilt, desire, love, respectability and repentance.’  Weeding out the women who did not meet the Hospital’s moral standards was the responsibility of the Enquirer, who fact-checked the mothers’ accounts, interviewed witnesses and requested character references. Among those women who were found wanting was Jane McNamara, who had her petition rejected in 1831 on the grounds that she had “lived as a mistress to the Father of the Child for 8 months”.

By placing these remarkable archival documents alongside popular fictional depictions of ‘fallen’ women, this exhibition enables us to better appreciate the impact that Victorian attitudes towards female sexuality had on individual women’s lives.

The Fallen Woman opens 25 September 2015 and runs until 3 January 2016.