The Lottery for Admission to the Hospital

Gateway to the Foundling Hospital (Walford 354).

On that first spring evening at Hatton Garden in 1741, what Thomas Coram once called his "Darling Project" (qtd. in Compston 109) was just beginning to take firm shape. He was there himself, of course, with his good friend William Hogarth, and other important people who had helped them. The scene was a poignant one, and often described in discussions of the Hospital. Crowds had gathered outside to see what would happen. At eight in the evening the entry lights were turned off, and a woman came through the darkness with a small child. Others followed. Soon so many children had been taken in that the doors had to be closed again. Some women wept because they had just given up their children, and others were just as distraught because there were no places for theirs. Thirty children were taken in on that first evening, eighteen boys and twelve girls. A few days later, a church service was held, and the children were baptised and given new names at the start of their new lives. The first two to be named were called Thomas Coram and Eunice Coram, as if they really were "Coram’s Children." Nearly all such children were babies of less than two months old. At this time, those who brought in older babies and toddlers were asked to contribute towards their care, and very few could afford to do so. Some had been well looked after. For example, one infant's dress was recorded thus: "A male child, about a fortnight old, very neatly dressed; a fine holland cap, with a cambric border, white corded dimity sleeves, the shirt ruffled with cambric" (qtd. in Brownlow 53). Yet others were half-starved, and proved too weak to be nursed back to health. Out of the first generation of children taken in, nearly 40% died before leaving the Hospital, though even this was "an enormous improvement over the rate of the orphaned or abandoned" (Schama 300).

Grade II listed structures at the entrance to the present-day Coram's Fields.

Nevertheless, the demand was so overwhelming that in 1742 a lottery system was introduced. This too is often described. Briefly, mothers wishing to bring in their children were asked to draw coloured balls from a bag. If they picked a white ball, their infant was provisionally admitted; if they picked a red one, they could wait and see if one of the infants already accepted turned out to be ineligible because of an infectious illness. A black ball meant outright rejection. Perhaps the worst aspect of this wretched process was that outsiders were permitted to watch (see Wagner 192), presumably to show the pressure under which the Hospital was operating. The system was dropped in 1756 when the government offered a grant and assurances of financial support. "A basket was accordingly hung outside of the gates of the Hospital, and an advertisement publicly announced, that all children under the age of two months, tendered for admission, would be received" (Brownlow 42). But the results were dire. Too many children were brought in, and too many of them died, so that when the government grant ended, restrictions were put in place again (see Cunningham 105). More money was forthcoming, however, and the Hospital survived.

As time went by, six extra “outposts” were opened in the countryside, like Ackworth in Yorkshire, which is still used as a school today. Between 1757 and 1773, 2,665 children were cared for at the Ackworth Hospital alone, only six percent dying in that time — "a magnificent record" for those days (Nichols and Wray 171; see also Saywell 70). Still demand grew. Such was the pressure that from 1801 only children born outside marriage, or, as a special case and only in very few instances, the orphans of soldiers and sailors who had died in service, were deemed eligible for admission to the Hospital. Even then, the number of illegitimate births was so large, and the problems faced by their mothers so insurmountable, especially after the New Poor Law in 1834, with its principle of "less eligibility," that five children had to be turned away for every one admitted. From 1845-48, for example, the average number of such children born each year in Middlesex alone was 2,200 (McClure 251), and children were being brought in from other parts of the country where the figures were even worse. In Victorian times, therefore, the first by-law of the institution stated specifically, without reference to the orphans of veterans: "The admission of Illegitimate Children shall be the Object of the Corporation" (By-Laws, 3).

As a class, these children undoubtedly had the greatest need. People had always looked down on their mothers, but in the Victorian period attitudes had hardened. This was reflected in attitudes towards the Foundling Hospital itself. Even the report of the Select Committee on Public Charities, in 1840, suspected it of encouraging licentiousness (see McClure 254). Women with proof of such "licentiousness," that is, with fatherless infants, not only lacked husbands to support them, but had almost no possibility of getting any work themselves. With no pressure on fathers to help, their options were extremely limited. There were three workhouses very close to the Foundling Hospital — the parishes of St-Giles-in-the Fields and St George had one in Bloomsbury, the parishes of St James and St John had one in Clerkenwell, and more recently there was the St Pancras workhouse in Camden Town. However, the mothers had to be admitted to these along with the children, forfeiting any hope they might have of leading an independent life. Inevitably, many tried the Foundling Hospital first. Then there were mothers who were not in need at all. These were driven to the Foundling Hospital by fear of shame and disgrace rather than starvation. "I am the miserable mother of a baby lately received under your care. I have a prayer to make to you." These words are spoken by the well-to-do "veiled lady" in "No Thoroughfare," a Christmas story of 1876 by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, who is trying to find out from someone at the Hospital what name her baby was given when she left him there (7).

Left: Statue of Captain Coram by William Calder Marshall, which once stood on the central pier of the Hospital's gateway, as if welcoming in the children. Right: The font from the chapel, in which the foundlings were baptised. It is now at St Andrew's Church, Holborn, not far from the Hospital's original site.


As well as being baptised with a new name, children admitted to the Hospital were given a number. Along with their age, the clothes they were wearing, and any other “marks” on them, these numbers were carefully noted in the Hospital’s registers, which can still be consulted in the London Metropolitan Archives. But there was something else as well. The charter presented to the first president of the Hospital, the Duke of Bedford, stipulated that those who brought in children should "affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known hereafter if necessary" (qtd. in Brownlow 38). The token might be a message, or a small item like a ribbon, brooch, locket, little carving or even a bottle tag. A verse left with one baby explained: "Not either parent wants a parent’s mind, / But friends and fortune are not always kind" (qtd. in Brownlow 52). Among the tokens still kept at the Foundling Museum are a little ivory fish, several heart-shaped tokens, and one pretty piece of coloured enamel, with the name "Ann Higs" beneath the chubby face of winged cherub. Any such "token" would help to identify the child if the mother was ever able to return for it. A few did come back. At first, such parents were expected to repay the money for their child’s care, but many were unable to do so. In 1764, this demand was withdrawn, and forty-nine children were quickly reclaimed. But the number soon declined again. For the overwhelming majority, what happened at the entrance to the Hospital was "the sudden and final separation of mother and child" (Compston 109), in itself the most questionable aspect of the process. Despite the care taken in providing identification for each individual child, noted by Alysa Levene as a proof of the Hospital's efficiency (24), the children almost invariably remained in the Hospital's care.

Like much else at the Hospital, admission procedures gradually moved with the time: those who brought in children later received regular receipts. But tokens had often featured as literary devices in novels, and continued to do so. An echo of the older system is found in Dickens's Oliver Twist, for instance, when the young hero's dying mother begs the workhouse nurse to keep a little bag containing a locket, two locks of hair and a wedding ring, "for the infant's sake" (348). This later confirms her son's identity and helps to secure his future. Whether this sort of thing was inspired by real life practices, or gave rise to such practices themselves, is "hard to say" (Schattschneider 71), though it is clear that the Foundling Hospital provided the source of the Dickens and Collins collaboration mentioned above. The veiled woman in their Christmas story does find out the name her son was given at the Hospital, and later manages to "adopt" a boy by that name. She thinks she has got her son back. But later still, the young man finds that he simply inherited the name from an earlier child who had died. Despite all the Hospital's concern for admission protocol, there appear to have been many such real-life tragedies in the foundlings’ histories (see Walford 361).

Last modified 11 May 2016