John Doherty was three months old in June 1757 when his mother Esther Doherty, a widow, left him at the Foundling Hospital. She left with him a note, keeping a copy of it. The hospital created another identifier by taking two pieces of fabric from his clothing, one of which she took home. The note and the other piece of fabric were wrapped in John’s admission sheet, or ‘billet’ and stored away safely.
Just two weeks later she said she wanted her son back. She submitted a petition to the governors to ask for his return.
The stored billet parcels were searched and one was found with the right date on it and the right tokens inside. John’s billet stated he was now Foundling No. 13239. Esther Doherty brought her copy of the note and the matching piece of cloth as confirmation. Parents’ safe-keeping of these identifiers and the Hospital’s good record keeping together allowed the best or the worst to be known. If the child was still alive, staff knew whether he or she was still at nurse, in one of the outstations or in an apprenticeship. Child number 13239, renamed Godfrey Coke, was being nursed by Hannah Blake in Berkshire under the supervision of the Rev George Talbot.
Until 1764 all parents asking to have a child back had first to agree to pay for the care given to it by the hospital. Only then could any search begin. They had to pay the cost of care even if the child was found to be dead. This was a strong deterrent to making a claim.
To get the baby to his mother in London, Mr Talbot sent a messenger to Hannah Blake’s home to ask her to bring the child to his house. She was to be ready to take him back to London because his mother wanted him back. He had booked a seat on the London coach for them. Hannah first had to wash John’s clothes and to find someone to look after her own children while she was away.
He would be back with his mother within days.
This was the bill for £1 15s 0d that Mrs Doherty would have to pay for the cost of John’s two weeks’ care, from his admission to his return:
Cost of nurse Blake fetching child from London to her home –– 12s 6d | Two weeks wages for nurse Blake –– 5s 6d | A messenger to nurse Blake telling her to bring the child –– 6d | A substitute for nurse Blake at home while she was in London –– 4s 0d | Cost of nurse Blake returning child to London –– 12s 6d
John’s mother had to provide two securities who would promise the child would never be a charge to the parish and she had to pay the bill. Then Hannah Blake could bring John back to London.
Esther Doherty had changed her mind quickly about John being in the hospital. Her bill was small and her baby not parted from her for long. Others waited years, with the costs of care piling up faster than they could save.
Men and women, single, married and widowed, submitted claims, some for more than one child. The number of children claimed between 1741 and 1763 was 182. The rules were changed in 1764 and parents did not have to pay the cost of care. In that one year 183 children were claimed. Between 1765 and 1790 another 179 were taken home. These 544 children may be only part of the total to be found.
Those claiming a child used the system as it had been designed to be used. They brought or sent with their claims: their child’s date of admission, copies of notes or billet clothing lists, matching halves of cards or ribbons, and descriptions of the tokens they had left with the children. This tenacity of purpose on the parental side is a strand which runs through the stories, showing itself in many ways, and which is of extreme importance.
However parents who had waited years to make their claim were not being reunited with the baby they left but meeting a child they did not recognise or know. The oldest successfully claimed child was 14, old enough to work. Reunion must have been very hard and much adjustment needed on both sides.
Foundling Hospital policy was to make sure that children growing up in its care fully understood their station in life. But nevertheless those children would have imagined or dreamt about a time when it might all be different. For them there were rules for everything, getting up, wearing uniform, eating, learning, working, going to bed. They had no warning of, or preparation for, the reality of return to the family at short notice and for personal relationships and home life. They did not know how to choose, nor how they were expected to behave. They did not know how to please the strangers who were suddenly their parents and who were calling them by a name they had never heard before.
Reunion, too often sentimentalised, was not always a happy ending.