England’s Ideology

Roy Porter

  • Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century by Ruth McClure
    Yale, 321 pp, £15.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 300 02465 7
  • Children of the Empire by Gillian Wagner
    Weidenfeld, 284 pp, £10.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78047 6

If old sea-dog Thomas Coram’s mission had been to found the most English, the most 18th-century of charities, he could not have done better than launch the Foundling Hospital – which he did, its doors receiving its first infant in 1741. Till then, England – unlike other countries – had had no hospice designed for abandoned babies, though such an idea had been floated in a characteristic gesture of lay piety by Addison in the Guardian. Unlike Continental refuges for orphans and bastards, the Foundling Hospital was run neither by the state, to produce well-drilled army recruits, nor by the Church, eager to baptise young souls. Embodying the spirit of mercantile private enterprise, it was constituted on joint-stock principles, headed by a governing board which combined landed and commercial wealth with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors, several of them Masons. In time, royalty did not blush to patronise the charity, though bishop governors were notably few, and women were absent. The Hospital was, in Ruth McClure’s words, the pioneer case of ‘incorporated associative benevolence’, with the aim, as Joseph Massie put it, that ‘Charity, Humanity, Patriotism and Economy be made to go hand in hand’. Popean, if not quite Mandevillian, in their humanitarianism, the benefactors knew that self-love and social were the same. As Thomas Coram himself computed the matter of charity towards the young, ‘a pound of malaga Raisins which costs 3d fills them with above 5 pounds worth of Love for me.’

Basking in the theatricality of good works in the days before the dismal science of economics restored sanity, the Hospital was a glamorous affair, one of the shows of London. A prestige site was picked, costing £6000, abutting rising Bloomsbury (imagine putting a borstal off Bond Street nowadays), and stylish buildings were erected for £6500 – a hybrid between a stately home and an Oxbridge quad. Subscriptions jingled in. Soon Hogarth, who never missed a gimmick, had turned its walls into London’s first art gallery, and Handel was conducting oratorios in its fashionable chapel: sight-seeing worshippers dropped guineas in the collecting boxes as they filed out. Lords and ladies were most generous when charity was dignified with fashion and culture, and the Hospital – like other solemn institutions, such as Bedlam and grandees’ seats – was always meant to be visible.

Moreover, the foundlings themselves were well-treated. For regular down-and-outs the parochial Poor Law was a bed-of-nails. Yet those unfortunates who were fortunate enough to be plucked up by the magnanimity of the Great and cast into a special institution (Christ’s Hospital, say, or the Magdalen Retreat for Penitent Prostitutes), or to be protected by a patron, like Tom Jones the foundling or Stephen Duck the thresher poet, fared well. Foundling Hospital infants were especially favoured. They benefited from the mercantilist desire to make everyone useful; from polite society’s new fascination with the child as plaything; from the Enlightenment experiment – now that original sin had been exploded – of attempting to see whether educability knew any limits; and from the post-Puritan destigmatisation of bastardy (the Evangelical revival was soon to change all that, but little moral and religious rancour greeted Coram’s condoning of ‘vice’).

Foundlings were wetnursed in the country, where mortality rates – running at about one in three – were creditably low. Back in London as children, they were clad in uniforms and fed a diet to make labouring men’s mouths water, supping in a hall hung with modern masters. All were taught to read, some to write. Later in the century, the managers, acting in loco parentis, took special care to ensure that youths were apprenticed to trades (some ended up in cotton mills). The lucky or talented did very well, several foundlings who received musical instruction becoming professional singers or organists. Julian Mariner, apprenticed to the Hospital’s apothecary, later became a successful practitioner in his own right, and completed the Hogarthian just-so story by marrying an heiress and becoming a governor of the Hospital. Ruth McClure calculates that approaching £100 was lavished on each foundling accepted – far more than labouring families could afford for their offspring – and that the charity had an enviable staff-foundling ratio of one to eight. No wonder many felt gratitude, keeping links with the institution in later life, some staying on as employees.

All this was possible because the charity was healthily endowed, benefactions being topped up in later years by rising rents as land was syphoned off for development. Enlightenment philanthropists thought endowed charities should be lavish, in order to dignify the donor (Victorians thought they should be tight-fisted in order to pinch the recipient). Not least, they wished to use the foundlings as prize beasts, guinea-pigs of social conscience. Foundlings were early beneficiaries of inoculation, and – in an abortive scheme floated by Charles Burney – they were to be the pupils of a national music school.

Ruth McClure’s archival researches do not fundamentally challenge the impression of the Hospital’s early history familiar since Nichols and Wray’s fifty-year-old, but better illustrated compilation. She does break new ground, however, in discussing its educational, dietary and medical provisions. Disappointingly, major controversial issues are skated over, such as Enlightenment attitudes towards children, infanticide and baby-care (e.g. swaddling), though she does show that many mothers shed sentimental tears when parting with their young. Yet her book commands attention for its grappling with two important issues. First, the author provides convincing evidence for the Hospital’s efficient administration. Wise balloting schemes ensured the equitable reception of manageable numbers of babies, and maintained identity with anonymity. Babies were smoothly ferried into the wholesome countryside to approved wetnurses, and regularly checked by squads of voluntary inspectors. Each foundling was tagged by number, and his progress through the Hospital carefully recorded. Unlike all too many institutions of the time, the Foundling Hospital was not infested with venality, peculation, brutality and bumbledom. These findings tell us to abandon the routine ‘Why were Georgian institutions so corrupt?’ (the question Utilitarian reformers taught us to parrot), and to ask instead why certain institutions were well-managed and others not.

Second, Ruth McClure charts the extraordinary interlude between 1756 and 1760 when, aided by a Parliamentary grant of up to £50,000 a year, the Foundling Hospital abandoned limited metropolitan reception for ‘General Admission’– an open-door policy for the entire country. The result was catastrophic. Whereas 1400 abandoned infants had been accepted in the first 15 years, ten times that number were taken in the next four – far more than the Hospital could cope with. Many had been bumped hundreds of miles in carters’ paniers, arriving half-dead. The mortality rate soared as high as 80 per cent. Parish officers used General Admission as a golden opportunity to relieve ratepayers of the burden of bastards in parish care. It was an experiment which Parliament ended once it recognised the spiralling costs – the final foundling was baptised Kitty Finis. This shows how ill-fitted Georgian institutions were to handle social problems of national dimensions. But it also catches Parliament in the rare sacrilegious act – for reasons that are unclear – of breaching the Act of Settlement and lifting the dead weight of social provision off the autonomous parish. The mazy development through the Georgian age of state responsibility for social ills remains unknown territory.

Coram’s world coped with its social sores because they remained small enough. The festers of darkest Britain became epidemic in the 19th century: paupers and unemployed, starving Irishmen, displaced Highlanders, the homeless and the hopeless, the criminal and the dangerous classes, juvenile delinquents, ricketty waifs and strays – lower depths of which the Evangelical philanthropist Annie Macpherson could write: ‘we can but be deeply thankful that in parts of the East End four out of every five infants die before they reach their fifth year.’ But society did not collapse, or explode. Liberal historians tell us the reason was Reform. But no less important was Escape. By enticement and force, Britain exported her social problems as bricks and ballast to the Empire. The sheer bulk of human flotsam and jetsam syphoned off through this safety valve, this phlebotomy, decongesting the homeland and opening new futures in the settling of virgin dominions, staggers the mind. Britain lost more manpower through emigration in the decade before 1914 than were killed in the Great War.

A good proportion of these refugees were children – indeed, infants. Building upon earlier traditions of transporting the young as indentured servants or as child criminals, Victorian samaritans launched a flotilla of charities to magic the urchins of the gutter, water-baby-like, off to the prairies of Canada and the downlands of Australia (South Africa involved too many conflicts with the Boers and the trials of intermingling white and black servant populations). Some concentrated on orphans or the abandoned; others contracted with overburdened parents; others, heeding a higher Christian call, kidnapped children in need, and dispatched them, often without their parents’ knowledge, to a new moral world (Barnardo defended these ‘philanthropic abductions’). Early pioneers such as Maria Rye put all their efforts into getting the infants there (God would provide). Later zealots, like Annie Macpherson, and rescue societies such as Barnardo’s, recognised that it was sound morality and good publicity to invest in aftercare as well. Most boys were placed as farm hands and girls as domestic servants, arousing suspicions that this Evangelical mission was really a white slave trade providing colonists with cheap labour. A few farm schools were tried (‘Fairbridge Farms’).

The story of this children’s crusade for God and Empire is discreetly told by Gillian Wagner, who can avoid the pious excesses of histories of philanthropy because her do-gooders really did good: case-histories show how many of these children of the Empire throve beyond the dreams of their siblings back home. But her book prompts the question: how could this massive draft of forced child labour, this masked slavery, have been permitted in free, family-rooted England? The answer surely lies in two crucial, if complex currents of the Victorian mind. One is the power of a gushing, born-again idyll of noble imperial grandeur, a back-to-the-land dream of preserving the innocence of youth, which would have been damned as twaddle by hard-headed colonists like Captain Coram a century before, who thought that Bloomsbury, not the veld, was the place for London’s orphans. The other is the empire of moralism, the irresistible creep of Christian virtue. Podsnapian individualists, who ranted against interference and centralisation, melted before the dictatorship of the godly, exercised by voluntary societies upon the helpless, the needy, the friendless, the unfortunate. Taken together, these forces help to explain the transition from philanthropic pragmatism to the embattled idealism which became the strategy for survival, the English ideology, in the Age of Empire.