When I travel, there’s one type of museum that I have to visit: schools. Even when I was a child myself, I just loved to visit the little one-room prairie schools. They just seemed so exotic!
In Glasgow, that meant Scotland Street School (which the kind hostel worker did not even know about). In London, that meant the Foundling Hospital.
Yes, as in Seraphin’s Foundling Hospital. I left that museum saying, “I need to write about a Foundling.”
The Foundling Hospital opened in 1741 thanks to the generosity of Thomas Coram. At that time in London, if you couldn’t take care of your baby, whether because you were too poor or were physically incapable, you really had no choice but to leave it to die on the river side. If they were older, they might survive in the street or a workhouse.
No one really wanted these abandoned children. They were thought to be illegitimate children of prostitutes or extra-marital affairs and carried the stench of immorality upon them. They were born to be delinquents and they would die that way.
The 1720s and 1730s were no picnic for children of any class. Gin had hit London hard. Many men and women became obsessed, spending their wages on gin (a six pence bought a bottle) and their time in the gutter. Disease after disease hit the city – typhus, desentery, measles, influenza. 74% of children died before the age of 5. If they were left to the workhouses, that death rate went up to 90% (thanks to an extra helping of neglect).
The Foundling Hospital gave parents an option, if they were lucky. Only children under 6 months were accepted, but unlike the other orphanage at the time, the children did not need to be legitimate.
Parents submitted a letter application and then tried their luck. They received one of three balls out of a machine. One meant their child would be admitted (providing the child passed the medical exam), one meant they could be put on the waiting list (and fill any spots left by children who didn’t pass their exams), and the last meant they were just plain out of luck.
There had to be a medical exam. Disease was high, and that wasn’t counting the poor health of just being born in the gutter. At one point, due to public pressure, the Foundling Hospital accepted all children regardless of health. It seems like a good idea (help as many children as possible), but that brought all sorts of diseases into the Foundling Hospital. Many of the Foundlings died, which not so surprisingly turned public opinion the other way, and the Hospital went back to performing medical exams.
The Foundling Hospital was mainly supported by patrons, which meant they were constantly in need of funds. Each spot cost money, so it was very difficult to accept more children, even with perfect health.
Being a Foundling wasn’t just better than dying on the streets, by the way. It was better than most lower class upbringings – besides that the children would never know who their parents were. That confidentiality was to protect both the mother and the child. What if the mother gained employment as a servant, only to be found to have an illegitimate child? She would be fired.
Mothers made up 99% of those who brought in children. They would leave items for their children, toys and trinkets, but the Hospital would never pass them onto the children.
The accepted children weren’t admitted to the Hospital until they were six years old. Instead, they were sent to live with families outside of the city. Auditors were employed to ensure the safety and health of all the children. Some of the families were very kind, to the point where the children didn’t even realize they weren’t related until they were sent off to the Hospital. Some were only in it for the money, but with auditors, the children couldn’t just be beaten and starved… to much.
At age six, the children would return to the Hospital like a boarding school. They were taught to read and write. The boys were taught to be soldiers, musicians, servants and apprentices. The girls were taught to be servants too.
The Foundling Hospital survived in part by patrons, so the nobles would come to watch the children eat dinner. Kind of odd, I think, but I suppose that’s what they considered to be charitable work.
Between the ages of ten and sixteen (depending on the era), the Foundling Hospital would find them gainful employment and apprenticeships. Then the auditors were back, checking up to make sure everything was going well.
See what I mean? Good lives. It could be a lot worse.
In the Cursed world, it’s so easy to see the Fallion turning their back on illegitimate children. Le Chasseur bade them only to breed within marriage and never have sex for any kind of pleasure. If nature rules us, then what’s the point of saving godless heathens who could never change?
But instead, the Hunters thought the children could be saved with a strict, disciplined upbringing. I find myself shivering a bit at that, but I don’t mean in an abusive way. Charitable retired Hunters taught the children how to live righteously, teaching them the layman’s scriptures (not the special for-Hunters-eyes-only scripture), as well as other skills for gainful employment for the Hunters’ Guild, whether in their households, guild buildings, or factories (like Seraphin).
That didn’t always work out, and not just because vampires like Alexis hunted them down and turned them into vampires. Out in the real world, they’d have so many temptations — gin, prostitutes or wives — and not everyone would be as devoted as Seraphin was. Even if Seraphin did become a vampire. Nothing’s ever perfect, eh?
The Foundling Hospital Museum is just a little place now. Half of it was torn down after it was shut down in 1954. In the basement, they had an exhibit set up with recorded interviews with the last Foundlings on what it was like living there.
If I had to summarize, I’d say this: they talked about life. Anyone’s life, with pranks on teachers, school yard games, getting to miss class by playing hookie in the hospital ward.
And there’s also the dark side to life. There was the dark side and the struggles that Foundlings had to face. I had to take a break from listening more than a few times to keep from crying. If you were a Foundling, you could be assumed to be illegitimate. One woman found herself out of a job because another woman at her work found out she had been raised at the Foundling Hospital and refused to work with her (and that was in the 20th century).
But overall, I see the Foundling Hospital as this little ray of light. When others couldn’t care that children were dying by the droves, a few people decided to do something about it. And not just keep them from dying, but to give these children a good life. A better life. In the days before all people even had rights. The goodness of humanity shines through the dark.
So if you’re in London, I definitely recommend dropping by. You can see some of the old Foundling Hospital building, as well as see artifacts and the history of the Hospital. And a room on George Frederic Handel who played a concert to raise money for the Hospital, as well as donated paintings (it was the style in the early days for artists to donate paintings to support the Hospital).