The Foundling Hospital

The existing statutes of 1727 and 1729 proved inadequate to cope with the social distress that followed the famines of the 1740s. In 1750 yet another attempt was made to address this problem through remedial legislation: 23 Geo. II, c. 11, declared that ‘there are in almost every part of this kingdom great numbers of helpless children who are forced to beg, and who will in all likelihood, if some care be not taken of their education, become hereafter not only unprofitable but dangerous to their country.’

Any child between five and 12 years of age found begging, or being led or carried by a begging person, was to be apprehended by the agents of the government-sponsored charter schools and, with the consent of the local Justice of the Peace, assigned to the most convenient charter school available for their reception, which might or might not be the school nearest to their locality. Appeals against this action could be made to the next Quarter Sessions, but anyone who, in the interim, enticed such a child from the school to which they had been assigned would be tried in the local courts and, if found guilty, committed to the House of Correction for six months’ hard labour.

As poverty was the root of the problem and the poorest areas were likely to be Irish-speaking, redress in the English-speaking courts of Quarter Sessions was probably difficult. Moreover, as the charter schools had been founded for the double purpose of education and proselytisation, many parents felt that their educational benefits were outweighed by their spiritual dangers.

Meanwhile, the hospital accepted all abandoned children offered to it and, in the hope of preventing infanticide, they made it easy for the donor to remain anonymous by providing a cradle on a turning wheel in which the baby could be placed. A bell was rung to alert the door-keeper, who then turned the wheel and brought cradle and child into the hospital. An alternative method was to abandon the baby on the bank of a nearby canal, where many either drowned or died of exposure.

Unfortunately, the hospital’s open-entry policy combined with social attitudes towards illegitimacy to encourage the development of a professional class of foundling carriers, who brought children from all over Ireland to the hospital. The Tyrone story-teller, William Carleton writes of one of these in his Autobiography:

The woman was notorious throughout most of Ulster, her name was Nell McCallum … she had been one of those well known characters who were engaged in carrying illegitimate children up to the Foundling Hospital in Dublin … She was subsequently prosecuted for robbing a carman, and transported.

These people placed as many as eight or ten of these unfortunate infants in a kish or large wicker basket, and transported them to the capital either on horseback or in a springless cart. Many died on the way or arrived at the Hospital with broken limbs.

Once inside the Hospital their plight was little better. In the unhygienic conditions of the eighteenth century, collecting together a large number of infants, many of whom were ill on admission, made high mortality inevitable. Contemporaries, although accustomed to high infant mortality, were appalled by the result. In the period 1784–96, 25,253 children were entered on the hospital’s admission records, and of these, 11,253 died.

Not all of them died inside the hospital, for many were cared for outside. Nevertheless, the internal mortality was such that the porter regularly buried the dead infants after morning prayers on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In 1797 the horror reached its climax as on 19 consecutive days 116 children were admitted and 112 died.

By comparison, in the London Foundling Hospital the mortality of foundlings fell from approximately 50 per cent in the middle of the century to about 17 per cent at its close. This was exceptionally low; the Paris Foundling Hospital had a rate more comparable to the Dublin hospital. When the Cork House of Industry was opened in 1747, it also had a Foundling Hospital but not an internal nursery. Instead it accepted children exposed during the year each Easter, and arranged for their nursing and care until they were of an age to be admitted to the institution for their education and subsequent apprenticeship. The result was worse, as the overall mortality of these children was 70 per cent by the age of 15.

In 1792 the House of Commons was alerted to the high mortality in the Dublin Foundling Hospital by Sir John Blaquiere (0162), MP for Charleville. Blaquiere was particularly concerned about social issues - he had also been active in the movement for prison reform. By 1797 the situation had again degenerated, and he raised the question once more. Another committee was appointed to inquire into the conduct of the Hospital, and on 11 April 1797 a report was laid before the House that regretted the necessity of ‘stating facts which carry a complexion of more than savage cruelty’.

It emerged that although there was a physician, a surgeon and an apothecary attached to the Hospital, no attempt was being made to keep the children alive – on his preliminary inquiry Blaquiere ‘had found 14 children stowed into an upper room - for the purpose of dying’. Parliament and society were shocked; the Hospital was reorganised and placed under the supervision of 13 Lady Governesses, including the Duchess of Leinster and Lady Castlereagh, the wife of the Chief Secre­tary.

For a time there was an improvement and the mortality rate fell, but by 1826 the situation had again degenerated and this time the Hospital was finally closed after an equally appalling report concluded that it was ‘evidently the design of Providence that the infancy of children should be supervised by their parents, and that any great departure from this principle … will be attended by circumstances of an untoward and perplexing nature’.

Fear of making things worse was often one of the motives behind the doctrine of laissez-faire in social issues, especially when the fragile nature of the social structure was underlined by the failure of well-intentioned experiments in alleviating social distress. Effective mechanisms for the administration of welfare were only at the start of their long and often halting evolution. Nevertheless, nine years after the Foundling Hospital was closed, the Commissioners of the 1835 Poor Inquiry were informed that in certain areas, such as Tullow, Co. Carlow, ‘the increase of infanticide generally has been awful since the closing of the Foundling Hospital’.