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​Entrance to Foundling Hospital, 1749. Reference: Collage - 17010

​Most visitors to LMA will be familiar with the existence of our stocktaking closure during the first fortnight in November, and many will also be familiar with the existence of the Foundling Hospital archive. During one stocktaking, the two came together and archivists Charlie Turpie and Anne-Marie Purcell would like to take you behind the scenes to explore the Foundling Hospital Petitions Project.

What is the Foundling Hospital?

The Foundling Hospital was established by Royal Charter on 17 October 1739 by Thomas Coram as a refuge for abandoned children. Coram was appalled at the numbers of dead and dying babies he saw in the streets of London, and the failure of the authorities to care for these children. Foundling (i.e. illegitimate) children had been cared for at Christ's Hospital from its foundation in 1552, but a decision to admit only legitimate orphans was taken in 1676. From this date onwards, therefore, the only option for illegitimate children was to be placed in a parish poorhouse, where extremely high mortality rates prevailed. Coram campaigned for twenty years in order to gain support for his scheme.

The Foundling Hospital archives are extensive and therefore a treasure-mine for many sorts of historians. The Governors met regularly and recorded all their decisions in minutes and Books of Regulation. They arranged for registers to be created to record the admission of each child and the token that might accompany it, its placement at nurse, the inspector supervising the nurse in her home parish, illness, smallpox inoculation, death or survival of the child to apprenticeship. They kept incoming correspondence and accounts from the inspectors, copybooks of out-letters, receipts for the wages of the nurses, infirmary records, and burial certificates for babies who died. Most importantly for our project they kept the petitions for admitting and for reclaiming a child.

What are the Foundling Hospital petitions?

In 1763, a new system was adopted which involved mothers submitting written petitions explaining the child’s background and making a strong case for their ability to make a new start in life. The petitions were accompanied by letters from family members, employers, and neighbours of good standing (churchwardens, respectable shopkeepers) as to the mother’s character. This petition system formed the basis of all subsequent admissions to the Hospital and the survival of these petitions in the collection provides a valuable insight into the backgrounds and circumstances of the mothers.

Once admitted, the children were baptised and renamed, each being identified by an admission number and - sometimes - a token left by the mother.

To trace the life of a particular foundling, the general registers, admission books, billet books and petitions are the key series. The general registers are ordered by the child’s admission number. They give date of admission, the child’s number, child’s (new) name, whether wet or dry, date sent to nurse and date of apprenticeship, discharge or death. The admission books add the name of the petitioner (usually the mother), the nurse’s name and residence. The billet books are very unusual because they contain the token, if one survives, given by the mother, to identify her baby if her circumstances changed and she was able to reclaim it. These books are arranged by child’s number and cover the period 1741-1814 (Nos. 1-19086). The tokens are most often pieces of fabric, but can be coins, playing cards or other flat objects.

Of the key series in tracing the life of the foundling, the petitions have two important characteristics – they focus on the life and circumstances of the mother, especially the reasons she cannot maintain her child. They also contain, often, the father’s name. These pieces of information are eagerly sought by all children who have been adopted or in care and of great interest to family and other historians who want to know more about the foundling’s background.

LMA’s Public Services staff help researchers use all these series regularly. They knew that the arrangement and cataloguing of the petitions could be improved to make finding all the information about the foundling’s background faster and more certain. They had the knowledge, but not the time to carry out the project. As Stocktaking 2010 grew closer, they wanted to devote some of these invaluable two weeks when LMA is closed to researchers to improve the chance of finding a foundling. Stocktaking is used for many different tasks, ranging from deep cleaning, repairs, building projects and improvements throughout the public areas of LMA, to large projects involving preparing for digitisation or transfer of thousands of records and, yes, sometimes actual stocktaking. Each project has to gain its place against many other worthwhile tasks. The Foundling Hospital petitions were given their time to shine.

What were the aims of the Foundling Hospital Petitions Project?

There were two aims. The first was to make it easier to know whether we had a surviving petition for a particular child and in which bundle it was contained. Until 1881, each annual bundle of petitions was not ordered by child’s admission number and the range of petition numbers was not noted in the catalogue. Each bundle had to be searched “on spec” to find a particular foundling. Public Services staff found this frustrating and time-wasting, both for researchers at LMA, who wanted to find out more about a foundling, and for themselves. They wanted to improve the finding aid (catalogue) for the petitions to record the admission numbers.

The second aim was to identify and permanently connect the supporting papers, sometimes individually little more than scraps of paper, but together forming a rich seam of information, with the petition to which they belonged. The papers were not physically attached to the petition, instead being generally tucked inside it. Some had escaped their moorings or even been tucked up in the wrong bundle and staff were worried about their survival.

What happened in Stocktaking 2010?

During stocktaking in November 2010, the Public Servives team carried out the project. The staff enjoyed investigating and ordering the petitions and supporting papers because they got a chance to look inside records in a systematic way, rather than quickly answering a particular enquiry. The staff became quite involved in the lives of the 19th century infants and mothers as they battled to identify little scraps of paper, sometimes written by barely literate Londoners who sought to convince the Governors of their worth and bona fides.

The admission books act as an index, so an indexing project was not necessary (it would have been very time-consuming and taken much longer than the time available). What was required was to identify the child’s admission number for each petition. Often this was written on the petition, but sometimes it was not given anywhere. In these cases we had to investigate entries in the admission books to find a match with the information in the unnumbered petition. The child’s number would then be written on the front of the petition bundle and also on each of the supporting papers, which were sometimes reunited after a fair degree of detective work (not made easier by the cavalier attitude to spelling names so familiar to all of us who have stepped back beyond the 20th century.)

The annual bundle of small gatherings of petitions and supporting papers was then arranged with the petitions in order of admission number, thus making it much easier to find a foundling. The child’s admission numbers, with any gaps shown, were added to the catalogue which made it much easier to see where the infant’s mother’s petition could be found.

Any loose papers which could not be connected, after considerable sleuthing, to any foundling within the bundle, were added at the back of that bundle and details of the mothers’ names and approximate dates were added to the catalogue. It is very likely that these children were not admitted to the Hospital – they may have died or their mother’s circumstances changed either before a full petition was submitted to the Governors or between approval and actual admission to the Hospital.

Foundling case history:  Elizabeth Benson, child number 19332

  • Child number 19332
  • Child name: Elizabeth Benson
  • Admitted: 31 July 1819
  • When born: 21 June 1819
  • Mother’s name: Sarah Mitchell
  • Wet nurse: Harriett Hook, West Peckham
  • Apprenticed: 2 October 1835
  • Apprenticed to: Robert Ransom, ladies shoe maker of 17 Bridgewater Street, Somers Town, Saint Pancras to be instructed in the business of laundry

Information from petition of mother:

The petition is by Sarah Mitchell, currently of Westminster Lying Inn Hospital, London, described as single and aged 24 years. The petitioner stated the father of the child was James Sharp. The petitioner was first acquainted with Sharp in early childhood when she lived in Blandford, Dorset with her father, a veterinary surgeon. Sharpe left Blandford to reside with his uncle in Holborn, London. Sharp later returned as a sailor and paid the petitioner a great deal of attention and asked for her hand in marriage. The petitioner alleged that Sharp took unfair advantage of her in September 1818 and from that moment she was unwell and the petitioner told him that she was pregnant. Sharp went away, telling the petitioner he was going to the West Indies. Sharpe wrote to the petitioner in October 1818 from No.1 Galway Street, City Road. The petitioner wrote back to Sharp however contact soon ceased. The petitioner last saw James Sharp on 22nd September 1818 and believes he is now at sea.

In the event of the child being received by the Hospital, the petitioner can return to her parents. The petitioner’s father is ignorant of her situation. The Hospital may write to her brothers, George Mitchell, Blandford and Reverend Joseph Mitchell, Baptist Minister, Warminster, Wiltshire. Mr William Henville, Cabinet maker, Salisbury Street, Blandford, Dorset may also be contacted for a reference.

Extracts from correspondence by those given as petitioner’s referees:

‘I may venture to affirm from my knowledge of Sarah’s principles and general conduct that [James Sharp] must have made the most solemn vows and have exhausted his stock of ingenuity before he could have accomplished his object’ - Reverend Joseph Mitchell, Baptist Minister, 12 July 1819.

‘Sir, you are practically a stranger to me and the question you ask is a very delicate one, you will therefore forgive me if I decline answering it… should have received this reply before. I am, sir, your most humble servant, William Henville, Blandford, 16 July 1819.

Further information

Documents consulted

You can search the records of the Foundling Hospital on our online catalogue under reference A/FH. The specific documents consulted for this article were:


  • You can see images of the hospital on the Collage website.
  • You can find out more about the history of the hospital at the Foundling Museum website.
  • Some material from the collection is being used in the Threads of Feeling Exhibition in the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg.

Information leaflets

You can find a quick guide to tracing a foundling in the records of the Foundling Hospital at LMA called Finding Your Foundling (82kb) on our information leaflets page.​

Related articles

Find out more about our collections relating to the care of the sick, dispossessed and destitute on our collections pages.

17 May 2012
Last Modified:
11 September 2018