Almost every child arriving at the Hospital underwent an identical process. His or her old clothes were removed, and the child was dressed in a new Hospital-issued set of clothes. Hospital staff would complete an admission form, wrapping any token left carefully inside.
The children had a letter of the alphabet tied onto them to identify them until they were given their new name and a number. This usually occurred a day or so after admission. The numbers allowed the Governors to track the children during their time at the Hospital. The person bringing the child was not told the child’s new identity.
Children too sickly to be moved were kept in the Hospital infirmary. All the others were handed over to women paid to raise them outside of London. These country nurses cared for the infants in their homes until the children were returned to the Hospital (usually between three and five years). Some admissions forms note whether the child was still being breast fed – so an appropriate nurse could found be to care for the infant in their early years. Every nurse came under the authority of an inspector. Some children did remain with their nurses – either because they were apprenticed to the nurse’s husband but sometimes because of mental or physical health issues.
Children returned to either the London Hospital or (between 1759 and 1773) one of the branch Hospitals (Ackworth, Chester, Barnet, Westerham or Shrewsbury). All children were taught to read – in order to read the bible. In 1757 boys were taught to write too. It is unclear if girls were taught to write at this time. Writing lessons seem to have stopped between 1760 and 1777, but when they did restart, boys were also taught basic accounting. It was not until 1800 we know that girls had a similar education.
From the age of six, the children were expected to work. As well as spinning, boys worked in the garden and girls did indoor domestic chores. All the children learned to darn and knit – to ensure they had a tidy appearance. For about a decade from 1763, most of the boys seem to have focused on vocational work such as weaving. Some boys learned skills such as shoemaking and tailoring. This was not so much to provide them with a trade but to make them generally industrious.
Some of the blind children were given music lessons from 1753 onwards, and by the 1770s music for all children was contemplated. Attending church and saying prayers was also part of the children’s education. Some time was set aside for ‘innocent’ play, but it was not until 1777 that we find a reference to the purchase of toys by the Hospital Governors.
The majority of children remained at the Hospital until they were 14 when they were apprenticed. But some children never left – they remained as servants or stayed because physical or mental disabilities meant that it would be difficult to find work.