London Foundling Hospital: Reclaimed Foundlings

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The story of the Foundling Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children (now the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children; in London is well known to genealogists, largely because its baptismal registers 1741-57, 1760, 1770-1838 are included in FamilySearch.

The word ‘foundling’ usually means the end of the road where genealogy is concerned but this article deals with the children who, in the 18th century, were abandoned at the Hospital in London and then, sometimes many years afterwards, later reclaimed by their parents, and whose descendants may be quite unaware that they were ever in the Foundling Hospital. Much has been written about foundlings, but these reclaimed children seem to have escaped the attention of genealogists, even though some item of their clothing or a token associated with them may yet survive.

The hospital started to receive children in March 1741 and the problem of distraught parents who wanted to reclaim their children arose very quickly. Many parents who thought that their circumstances might improve had attached identifiers or ‘tokens’ to their children so that they might be identified in the future and these were carefully preserved by the hospital and noted in ‘Billet books’. A register of reclaimed children was commenced in 1743. Bonds guaranteeing their maintenance survive from 1748, applications (called ‘Petitions’) for the return of children from 1758, and receipts for those taken away from 1759.

All the babies received at the hospital were given numbers and a new name, the latter being perhaps that of a governor of the hospital or of a famous person, though a few names like Hopegood Helpless and James Maggot appear. The children were baptised on the Sunday after their admission and although the baptismal registers have been indexed into FamilySearch this is not a complete guide to the children admitted to the hospital. Apart from gaps in the registers, some children died before baptism and some who were known to have been baptised previously were not baptised again. They were then handed to country nurses until they were three, four or five, depending on the date, and then returned to the hospital for education until apprenticeship in housework or to an appropriate trade.

Delays and Deaths[edit | edit source]

Some children were retrieved within a few days or weeks of their being abandoned and one wonders why they were given up in the first place, though if they were illegitimate there may have been pressure from the parish authorities. Adam Frith (9759), for instance, was delivered to Sarah Dove of Stevenage (presumably his mother), the day after his admittance in 1758.

Jonathan Sundridge (11338) abandoned at the age of three weeks on 25 January 1759, was returned to his mother Martha Bennet, of Pool, Wiltshire [sic], spinster, on 21 February 1759. Hawkins Miles, of Pool, farmer, and Robert Barker, of Labor in Vain Hill, London, victualler, were sureties.

Some children, however, were not applied for until many years had passed, presumably following an improvement in the parents’ circumstances. Clarissa Cripps (805) who was admitted on 7/18 September 1751 (the date is given in both Old and New Style) and delivered to her father Robert Maxwell of Drury Lane, upholsterer, thirteen years later, on 20 Jun 1764. Ann Craven, of Hornsey Lane, Islington, reclaimed her daughter, Elizabeth Puxty (648), after fourteen years in 1764, although she had begun to serve an apprenticeship.

Great numbers of the children admitted to the Hospital died in infancy and it must have been particularly sad for those who wished to reclaim their children, perhaps after many years, to find that they had died in the meantime. Maria Denton, of St Leonard, Shore Ditch, applied in 1764 for the return of her child Sarah Henley (817), abandoned thirteen years earlier (and baptised on 8 September 1751, being named by Mrs Henley), only to be told that she had died eight days after baptism.

The application of William Gibson, mentioned below, who had given up two children, both of whom had died, is a case in point.

Relationships[edit | edit source]

Usually a child was returned to its mother and if she was a spinster this seems normally to be stated. After 1763, orphaned children of soldiers and some children of deserted married women were accepted. From 1772 only real foundlings and exposed and deserted children were supposed to be admitted. Practically all the children accepted by the Hospital after 1801 were illegitimate.

Benjamin Kippax (6651), abandoned on 14 December 1757, was returned to his mother Elizabeth Collins, of Birmingham, widow, on 25 July 1764. Her husband may have died. Mary Johnson (10348), abandoned on 3 November 1758, was, six days later, delivered to Edward Oakley ‘the reputed father’.

Mary Price (2439), admitted in 1756, but not baptised in the Hospital, was returned to her parents, Samuel and Margaret Hyde, of Great Ormond Street, victualler, in 1761 when George Hyde, of Tottenham Court, brewer, and William Lewis, of Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, cabinet maker, stood sureties.

Jane Ford (17564), admitted in 1780, was delivered to her mother’s uncle George Nesbit, of Little Charlotte Street, Oxford Road, in 1787.

Charlotte Willis (16433), abandoned at the age of six weeks in 1764, was returned to her mother Susanna Willis, of Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1770. This child seems, by chance, to have been given the same name as its mother.

Margaret Bye (11890), the daughter of Phoebe Deering, of Grey Eagle Street, Spital Fields, spinster, was two days old when abandoned and reclaimed after nine days in March 1759, when Richard Deering, of the same address, weaver, perhaps Phoebe’s father, stood surety.

It seems rare that an application was refused, but Mary Brown, of Aldersgate Street, widow, who, in 1760, tried to reclaim her daughter Catherine Dunk (15731), abandoned in 1760, was refused on the grounds that she had another child in the workhouse and was unable to maintain herself.

Sureties and Bonds[edit | edit source]

The Hospital could ask for two persons to stand sureties when a child was returned and to provide a band (for £80) guaranteeing that it would be well maintained until the age of 21. Enquiries as to the character and circumstances of these bondsmen might be made. This requirement for bonds was discontinued after 1800.

The first bond filed was provided by John Peter Maas, of Maiden Lane, St Paul Covent Garden, china man, and John Sinnott, of the same, peruke maker, on 25 May 1748. It sets out that the Governors of the Hospital received a female child on 22 April 1748 who was given the number 413 and baptised as Roberta Corbett but that John Sinnott and Bridget his wife are her parents and he ‘is become able to maintain the said child’. The bond includes a receipt for the child, signed by Bridget Sinnott on 25 May 1748. The baptismal register shows that Roberta had been baptised on 24 April 1748, being ‘named by Mrs Hougham’.

A deposit to cover ‘what may have been expended on the child’ was usually negotiated. Elizabeth Payne, of Edenbridge, Kent, who had given up her son in 1759, paid two guineas for this, when she later reclaimed him.

The relationship of the sureties to the child being claimed does not always appear in the bond. Elizabeth Ward, of Northampton, spinster, gave a bond to support Jacob FitzGeorge (10349) on 22 December 1762. This child had been admitted on 3 November 1758 and the Disposal Book for 1762 shows that he was actually being apprenticed (at the age of four) to this Elizabeth Ward, there described as of Little Britain, for household work until the age of twenty-four. This is unusual, but shows that some of the bonds for ‘maintaining’ children were from the masters to whom they had been apprenticed.

Catherine Skeen, of Brownlow Street, Long Acre, spinster, however, in 1762 gave a bond for Blanche Cowley (13687), which is endorsed ‘delivered to its mother’.

Amongst the filed bonds there is one for £10 from Thomas Robinson, of Lamb Conduit Mews, St Andrew Holborn, shoemaker, dated 29 December 1763, about the behaviour of his son William (his new name and number are not given) who is not to play ‘any unlawful games and particularly shall not … be guilty of making any Lottery or taking Money for any Chance in any private scheme by way of Lottery or of making or delivering any Ticket for any such Chance or Lottery’.

Nursed and Stolen[edit | edit source]

Children put out to nurse could be vulnerable, though it was a general rule not to tell the parents where they were. After problems in 1764 it was agreed that the whereabouts of an apprenticed child should not be divulged to its parents without the apprentice-master’s consent, ‘lest they are misled to neglect their work’.

In 1758 Timothy Worth (7432) was, after seven months, ‘Taken from its nurse Hannah Callingham of Wick, Surrey, by two women and carried to Thorpe in Surrey’. The Admission Register adds that this was done ‘by force’. On 7 January 1760, George Boyce (8841), who had been admitted on 3 June 1758, was ‘Taken away by Fraud from Elizabeth Chapman at Edmonton (supposed by its Parents)’. Unfortunately, in these cases the names of the parents are not given.

Elizabeth Paget (13021), however, admitted on 6 June 1759 when eight days old, was later that day ordered to be delivered to Mary Curl, of Stevenage, Hertfordshire, she having been ‘taken away by force’. The Admission Register adds that Mary was the mother. Stephen Knox (9368), admitted in July 1758, was, the following September, ‘Taken from its nurse Elizabeth Russell of Odiam in Hampshire by a woman of Calne in Wiltshire who went by the name of Martha Skull’. The Admission Register adds, ‘who pretended to be its mother’.

Twins or Brothers and Sisters[edit | edit source]

In a few cases attempts were made to retrieve two children, perhaps twins, who had been deposited at the same time. William Gibson, pensioner in Chelsea College, for instance, petitioned, on 4 July 1764, for the return of his two children, Mary Abbot (2580) and Ann Archer (2582) who had been admitted on 26 October 1756 (but not baptised) and put out to nurse two days later, only to be told that both had died the following year.

Two children actually described as twins, who were abandoned at the age of three months by their mother Mary Feeny, of Ship Street, St George in the East, widow, on 25 March 1760, and given the names Charlotte Somerset (16306) and John Strange (16307), were both returned to her on 12 August 1760. In this case Patrick Feeny, of the same place, coal heaver, no doubt a relative, provided surety.

Rose Thurlow (7056), who had been deposited in the Hospital on 18 January 1758, along with Luke Hooper (13664) deposited on 10 August 1759, were both retrieved by their mother Mary Cludd, wife of Thomas Cludd, of Middleton Buildings, St Mary le Bon, taylor, on 5 September 1764. Rose was then at Mepsal and Luke at St Albans.

Standing and Distance[edit | edit source]

The social standing of the families was varied and a number of the children came from respectable families. Thomas Wynne (12719), who was admitted on 10 May 1759, was handed to Thorold Lowdell, of Blackman Street, surgeon, on behalf of his father John Douglas, of Elstead, Surrey, schoolmaster, on 20 June 1764. William Downie, of St Martin in the Fields, watchmaker, who retrieved his child Thomas Oakley (4285) on 9 February 1764, had as surety Joshua Bostock, of St Mary le Strand, mathematical instrument maker, and Robert Moore of St Martin in the Fields, jeweller. Prudence Waller (3243), who was abandoned on 21 January 1757 (and not baptised in the Hospital), was retrieved from Shrewsbury by her mother Mary, the wife of George Bally, of Moncton, Hampshire, gentleman, on 17 October 1764.

Distance seems not to have been any problem. Faith Henley (15930), who had been admitted on 8 March 1760, was ordered to be returned to her mother Catherine Flint, of Wheldrake, Yorkshire, spinster, on 9 April 1760. Faith, who was three months old when admitted, was already at nurse with Mrs Birch at Abingdon in Berkshire who wrote to the hospital on 7 April hoping to be allowed ‘to continue my care in looking after the child and seeing due tenderness used to it, and from time to time to inform her [the child’s mother] of its welfare, till she should recall it’. This letter is printed in Gillian Clark, Correspondence of the Foundling Hospital Inspectors in Berkshire 1757-8 (Berkshire Record Society, vol.1, 1994) [not in FHL], but Mrs Birch’s suggestion was not taken up.

Mildred Jackson (13786), who had been admitted on 27 August 1759, aged one week, was returned to her mother Isabella Ross, of Inverary, Scotland, wife of George Ross, a sailor on board one of the King’s ships, on 18 June 1760. George Martin (17589), admitted on 6 September 1780, was delivered to his mother, Eleanor Dillon, of Paris, on 18 July 1787.

Numbers involved[edit | edit source]

Statistics produced in January 1767 showed that of the 16,511 children admitted to the Hospital prior to that date, only two had then reached the age of 21, some 11,140 having died. 4,285 were living in the Hospital or at nurse, 924 were serving apprenticeships and only 160 had been reclaimed.

According to these figures, 143 of the reclaimed children were removed in the period of ‘General Reception’ (i.e. between 1756 and 1760) and only five afterwards. Since a volume survives listing 159 reclamations in the short period April 1764 to January 1765, these figures may not be reliable (even allowing for those ‘reclaimed’ who had died). They appear in R.H. Nichols and F.A. Wray, The History of the Foundling Hospital (1935) [not in FHL]. Without examining all the records and opening the bundles of petitions mentioned below, it does not seem possible to say how many children were actually returned to their parents.

One presumes that those reclaimed would have abandoned the new surnames they had been given in the Hospital and that they resumed their family names, though they may have kept their new Christian names. They would, if this is the case, only appear in FamilySearch under their hospital names and not under those by which they were later known.

Records[edit | edit source]

Details of those children retrieved between 1743 and 1787 appear on pages 305-14 and 329-31 of a ‘Disposal Book’ basically listing those who were apprenticed by the hospital (available on microfilm X41/5A at the London Metropolitan Archives). The names of the reclaimed children are not included in the index to this volume.

One hundred and fifty-nine children also appear in a ‘Register of Children Claimed’ covering the ten months from April 1764 to January 1765, which additionally shows where the children were when claimed and the dates of death of those who had died in the meantime.

Covering a longer period are the many bundles of signed petitions from reclaiming parents, commencing in 1758. Although not complete in the early years, they continue to 1796. There are also bundles of bonds guaranteeing the future maintenance of the reclaimed children from 1748 (some including receipts for the children), and there is a separate series of receipts from 1759.

All these records are at the London Metropolitan Archives (collection A/FH; catalogued at An outline of the collection is provided by the online LMA Information Leaflet, Number 33, Finding Your Foundling.

The baptism (1741-1757, 1760, 1770-1838) and burial (1741-1758) registers are at The National Archives (reference RG4/4396 and RG4/4238) [FHL microfilm 597095 items 1-2]. Records are also available at the The Official Non-Conformist and Non-Parochial BMDs Service (RG4/4396: Genealogist: $ and RG4/4238: $.

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

In addition to the abovementioned books see Ruth K. McClure, Coram’s Children: the London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981) [FHL book 942.1/L1 J3].

Acknowledgment[edit | edit source]

This article has been adapted with permission from an article by Anthony Camp, ‘Reclaimed Foundlings’, in Family Tree Magazine (UK;, vol. 16, no. 8 (June 2000), pages 19-20.