Signs in the street and advertisements in newspapers told the people of London the Governors of the Foundling Hospital would start admitting children from 25 March 1741. Initially it was a case of first come, first served, until October 1742 when a new lottery system was implemented. The Governors believed that this was a fairer system, ensuring there was no favouritism in the choice of who was taken in and who was refused.
Now coloured balls decided the fate of each child. One by one, those bringing children – generally their mothers – were asked to pick a ball from a bag. A black ball meant refusal; the woman and baby were sent away. A white ball meant a child had the chance of admission, but first had to be examined in a separate room. As long as an infant had no signs of infectious disease and was within the stated age (initially under two months), it could be taken in, its carer dismissed. But failing the examination meant a child was sent away. Those who had picked a red ball now had a further chance at the lottery – and the system was repeated again until the Hospital had the agreed number of children for that particular day (usually 30). It might be another month or two before the next admission day was announced.
On the 2 June 1756, with financial support from parliament, a new, much broader, system of admission began, known as General Reception. A lodge was built in the wall of the new Hospital where people could go to admit a baby. One by one, individuals entered the room, and rang a bell to alert the clerk of their arrival. Then the outside door was locked, and the infant was passed in through a hatch. A nurse then examined the child to ensure it was under the agreed age (which increased to one year by 1760). Infants were returned if they were thought too old, handed back to whoever had brought them. Children could now be admitted day or night, healthy or unwell, but there was growing concern that admissions were not always with the mother’s permission.
Until September 1811 each child admitted was recorded on a form known as a billet. This documented the date of admission, as well as the sex of the child. Tokens left with children (notes, fabrics or objects) were wrapped and sealed inside these billet forms – or if too large kept locked in the secretary’s closet. They had to be kept secret. Anyone returning to claim a child would be asked to describe the token they left as proof of their identity. The Hospital started issuing receipts for children left in its care in 1758. This removed the official need for tokens, but if something was left it was carefully stored.
When General Reception ended on 25 March 1760, the only children that were admitted until 1763 were war orphans. About 800 parish (workhouse) children were also accepted between 1767 and 1791. Eventually Governors tried to admit only those infants whose cases were judged ‘deserving’. Admission was decided by questioning the mothers about their personal circumstances. The women not only had to make a written application but provide references and attend an interview. The only other way a child could be admitted (between June 1756 – December 1801) was on payment of £100, equivalent to about £10,000 today. Not surprisingly, this accounted for very few children. By December 1801 only children of unmarried parents and the orphans of military families were accepted. Only the first child of a single mother was admitted in the hope she would never find herself in a similar situation again. This procedure continued until admissions ended in 1955.