The Outcast by Richard Redgrave was painted in 1851, at the beginning of the decade in which William Acton published his pioneering study on illegitimacy (1859).

1. The Family

The work of the Foundling Hospital is most fully appreciated in its larger context. It could only admit a tiny percentage of the desperately-placed children brought to its gates. What happened to the rest?

Normally, the first and best solution for any fatherless child was to be kept by the mother's family: "most deprived children were cared for within the family network, very widely extended by modern standards, and orphans were often entrusted to a relative" (Ford and Harrison 36). Common sense, and faith in human nature, suggests that this could also happen in the case of illegitimate children. However, there are no figures to prove it. Secrecy would have been the order of the day. As Richard Redgrave's painting so clearly suggests, the expected response to the birth of such an infant into an otherwise "respectable" family or household would have been rejection. Redgrave himself may well have presented this painting more as an "Awful Warning" than as a plea for leniency (see Roberts 63).

As noted in Part Two of this article, attitudes were harsh. William Acton's pioneering Observations on Illegitimacy (1859) starts by likening this widespread "social evil" to a plague, and pointing out that 42,651 illegitimate children were born in 1856 in England and Wales alone (491). Acknowledging the general feeling of repugnance towards the subject, he indicates that it has seemed risqué for decent people even to discuss it (see also Reekie 37). Class issues soon enter the picture. Many of the mothers, he finds, have been in domestic service (493). Similarly, when the Oxford-educated advocate George Seton writes about the problem in Scotland in 1860, he first shows its scale: one in every eleven live births north of the border, he claims, and many more if the truth be known, are illegitimate. Then he too links the phenomenon mainly to the working classes. His conclusion is startling: "nine out of every ten young women of this class are unchaste" (8). In this way, both studies reveal not only the enormous number of illegitimate births, but the enormous prejudice, reinforced by class consciousness, against the women involved.

Worse, Victorian fiction demonstrates that this prejudice prevailed throughout the period. For example, there is scant sympathy in George Gissing's novel, The Odd Women (1893), for the shop-girl Amy Drake whose brief fling with Everard Barfoot results in pregnancy. Everard makes her a "small allowance for a year and a half" until the child dies, and sees himself as the victim of her shameless behaviour (108). Even his maiden aunt, whose whole mission in life is to strengthen and equip single women like Amy for decent self-sufficiency, accepts his relative innocence. Elsewhere, Miss Barfoot dismisses such women out of hand: "The odious fault of working-class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature" (71).

The death of Amy's baby is all too representative of the "great mortality" that Acton uncovers in the three London parishes he studies (493). The Foundling Hospital, he claims, is neither an adequate nor a cost-effective solution for this critical situation. Moreover, it is situated in insalubrious surroundings. His idea is for a Government Board to assume responsibility, helping to recover costs from the seducers, keeping and educating the "infant bastards" (494), and trying to rehabilitate the women afterwards. The best way of achieving the latter, he suggests, is "marriage with their first paramours, when the latter were persons in the same rank of life as themselves" (505; note the rider). He does not urge the fallen servant girl's family or employer to look after her.

There would have been little point in that. Even as regards the Hospital itself, God-fearing women could visit it on Sundays, but that was all. They might have been instrumental in getting the project off the ground (see Part One), but they were never involved in running it: "none of them ever sought to participate officially in its administration" (McClure 46). Should such an unfortunate case occur nearer home, the "Ladies of England," as Acton calls them, were not encouraged, expected (or allowed by their husbands?) to offer a roof to a newly "fallen" woman. However, Acton does recommend that the "Ladies" re-employ their servants after the birth, "in nursing or household work" (493).

2. The Workhouse

Right: The former St Pancras workhouse from St Pancras churchyard. The workhouse was rebuilt in 1890-93, but still looks forbidding; it is now St Pancras Hospital. Left: Mrs Higden, Sloppy and the Innocents, by Sol Eytinge, an illustration for Chapter 16 of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, showing a baby-minder with her little charges, and an older boy from the workhouse.

There were, however, already some alternatives to either the Hospital itself, or care in the family. Deliberately unwelcoming as they were, the workhouses still took in about half a million foundlings after 1728 (Coleman and Salt 44). These infants would then be "farmed out" for nursing, like the Foundling Hospital babies. But they were not closely supervised, and were often neglected. While death rates improved elsewhere, at least 60% of workhouse babies died before the age of two (again, Coleman and Salt 44). Those who survived being farmed out returned to a grim and cheerless existence, with such poor hygiene and a routine so oppressive that many more died after that, too. For example, on 6 December 1869, the Times reported an inquest on deaths at the St Pancras workhouse, in which the "unsanitary state of the infant nursery ward" was particularly condemned: apparently it stank of sewage (5). Oliver Twist, subtitled or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, describes all the horrors of such parish "care." Oliver’s famous words are not just about food. Dickens shows that parish children needed a lot “more” of everything, especially kindness.

3. Orphanages

This building was erected in 1869 for the Sailors' Orphan Girls' School and Home, Hampstead, which was originally established in 1829.

Thomas Coram may have set the general pattern for organised charities, but the orphanages that followed his provided for the deserving rather than the (apparently) undeserving poor. An example in London was the Adult Orphan Institution of 1818, which offered a home to the orphans of Church of England clergymen and army and navy officers, which only admitted girls between the ages of 14 and 17, and only kept them until they were 19 (see Cunningham, Handbook, 3). As for public orphanages, among the first were the Female Orphan Asylum in Lambeth, established in 1758 and incorporated in 1800, which admitted girls between the ages of eight and ten (see Cunningham, Handbook, 180), and the Infant Orphan Asylum at Wansted, instituted in 1827, which only took children up to the age of seven (see Cunningham, Handbook, 244). Others followed, but these too had conditions limiting their intake. They might be targeted at specific groups of orphans, such as the children of sailors and marines, who occupied the fine building shown above from the late 1860s. Or they might expect contributions: at the Orphan Working School on Hampstead Road, for example, children could only be taken after the age of two, and then on payment of 10 guineas. The child could then be kept in the school "during the life of the presentee by contributing 250 Guineas" (Cunningham, Modern London, back matter, p. 16).

However many places were offered, the demand was still too great. Mrs Gaskell, in one of her many kindly ventures, wrote to some unidentified person in about 1852, appealing for help on behalf of a friend's cousin's "3 or 4 little orphan children." "Of course, there are numerous Orphan Houses," she explained, "but I had occasion to make application to one of the most wealthy 2 years ago, and learnt that they had upwards of a thousand names on their books"(Letters 183). Later on more were opened, including, in 1870, the first of Dr Barnardo's children’s homes in Stepney. His motto was "The Ever Open Door," though the door might well lead to Canada when the child was old enough to be sent out there. But even then the need was not met: at the end of the nineteenth century there were still private "baby farms" in operation: the women who ran them took money for childcare, but often neglected their charges. Some even murdered them. In George Moore's best known novel, Esther Waters (1894), the eponymous heroine leaves her illegitimate baby with a certain Mrs Spires, who offers to take little Jack off her hands in just such a way:

" Now look 'ere, if you'll listen to reason I'll talk to you. Yer mustn't look upon me as a henemy, I've been a good friend to many a poor girl like you afore now, and I'll be one to you if you're sensible like. I'll do for you what I'm doing for the other girl. Give me five pounds.... and if you likes to go out again as wet-nurse, I'll take the second off yer hands too, and at the same price." (148)

This might seem far-fetched now. But the last woman to be hanged at Newgate Prison, in March 1900, was a baby-farmer called Ada Chard-Williams. The body of 20-month-old Selina Ellen Jones, who had previously been put in her care, had been found strangled in the Thames (for this notorious case, see the Times of 19 February, p. 11, and 7 March, p.12, that year).

3. Living Rough

"Rescued Children," from Best, facing p. 116. Courtesy of the Shaftesbury-Grooms Society.

The streets of London were already overrun by bands of unsupervised, uncared for children in the eighteenth century, wearing ragged clothes, gambling, fighting, pickpocketing and getting up to all sorts of mischief. By the Victorian period the numbers had grown. An estimate of 100,000 pauper children might seem rather too neat a number, but it certainly "seem safe to say that there were very many of them" (Picard 86). The names of the places where they slept tell us all we need to know about this alternative to institutional care. The area at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue, around St Giles High Street, was called "The Rookeries," because people huddled together there in slums, even sleeping on the rooftops, like rooks roosting together in the trees (see Ackroyd 137-143). Their dingy rooms were sometimes called "sties" and their places of amusement "dens" — words usually used for animals' holes. Dickens's name for the filthy, damp, decayed street in Bleak House is also indicative of their lot. Jo, the orphan crossing-sweeper, inhabits "Tom-All-Alone's." He and his like huddle there "in maggot numbers" (Bleak House, 202), but they are completely cut off from decent society. The children themselves were given equally descriptive names: "street arabs" because they roamed together in wandering groups; "guttersnipes," because they lived by the dirty drains like the brown-feathered wading birds called snipes; "mudlarks" because they scavenged in the mud beside the Thames, looking for anything they might be able to sell.

Life in rural areas could be just as bad. An old ballad, quoted in Chapter 3 of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, gives us a picture of "the poor orphan child" trudging through the countryside: "My feet they are sore, and my limbs they are weary; / Long is the way, and the mountains are wild." When the speaker says, "Soon will the twilight close moonless and dreary / Over the path of the poor orphan child," the not unfounded suggestion is that death will soon follow (24). Strategically placed at the beginning of Jane's story, the ballad foretells her own difficult journey through life, which at one point almost does lead to death from exposure on the inhospitable moors. Fortunately, however, she survives — her survival due in part to her own resilience, but in part also to human intervention. "You have done your duty in excluding," says St John Rivers to Hannah, his self-righteous housekeeper, "now let me do mine in admitting her" (332). Like Oliver Twist, it is the classic orphan's tragedy rewritten to provide a positive outcome, and for that very reason of perennial appeal.

4. Death

George Frederic Watts's famous painting of 1867, Found Drowned, probably depicts a woman who is unable to live with the shameful prospect of bearing an illegitimate child.

Acton showed that nearly half of the illegitimate children born in three London parishes, including St Pancras, died, and that in many cases the circumstances were such that inquests had to be held (501). The death of the mother and/or her unborn or recently born infant was often the most likely alternative of all:

The world is but too prone to be hard upon poor women who have 'made a slip' of this nature; and but too often their own sex affix a kind of moral ticket-of-leave to them, which effectually prevents their regaining their position. Under the contumely and the desperation to which such treatment reduces them, the poor creature sometimes sacrifices not only her own life, but also that of the unhappy child. (Walford 358-89)

This could well be the tragic outcome of the scene depicted by Richard Redgrave sixteen years earlier. Acton's support programme for "fallen women" was never implemented, and whether it would have worked is doubtful. Separating out such unfortunates would perhaps simply have reinforced prevailing attitudes towards them. Moreover, thanks to these attitudes, the Foundling Hospital remained the only one of its kind in London, and indeed in the whole country, throughout the nineteenth century — the period when it was most desperately needed.

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Last modified 8 June 2013