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Invisible women of the Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Museum has redressed the gender imbalance in its story – though the issue of class remains, writes Jane Clinton

11 October, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Emma Brownlow’s painting of the Hospital sick room

FOR the first time in 300 years the women who were pivotal in the creation and running of the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children have been given their moment in the spotlight.

From the 18-year-old Duchess of Somerset who was the very first person to sign Thomas Coram’s petition to create a Foundling Hospital, to the laundry maid, a new exhibition in two parts aims to right the wrong of this neglect.

The portraits of the Duchess of Somerset and the 20 other high-bred women who put their reputation on the line to sign the petition have been traced and brought together in the elegant picture gallery. They replace the portraits of the male governors which usually hang here.

The story continues with a more detailed look at the women who were the worker bees at the hospital. Sadly for this exhibition these women, who were predominately working class, do not share the grand environs of the picture gallery. Instead, they are relegated to the lower ground floor for their story to be told. A case of upstairs downstairs perhaps?

It is somewhat disappointing that while the gender imbalance has been addressed, the issue of class remains stubbornly unchallenged.

The unknown cook

That niggle aside, there is much to be applauded in this ambitious and timely exhibition which also marks 100 years of female suffrage. We read about the countless women who were behind the scenes making sure the Foundling ran smoothly. There are unidentified women – like the cook carving a joint of meat in the 1940s. Given that this was not so very long ago it shows how “invisible” many of these women were.

Reading their stories gives us a greater sense of the place as a functioning entity, where clothes need­ed to be washed, meals needed to be prepared and children needed to be nursed.

The wet nurses are particularly interesting. By nursing the babies they put themselves at risk of infection from smallpox, scabies and syphilis, which was pas­sed on through breast­feeding. Some nurses became deeply attached to the children. One such woman, a Mrs Crook, was a wet nurse in the Barnet area during the 1760s. She adores a little girl called Prudence whom she had cared for and asked the Hospital if she could keep her. In a letter she wrote she wanted her to stay with her “for any price rather than part with her”.

Sadly, Mrs Crook was unsuccessful and Prudence was returned to the Hospital in 1767, aged eight. It is likely that they decided the apprentice­ship offered for Prudence did not meet their strict standards. It would seem amid such exacting standards the Hospital lost sight of what would make for a happy childhood.

Some of the stories in this downstairs exhibition are rather entertaining. There is Hannah Pestall who was a laundry maid in 1871. She went on to become the senior laundry maid but she was at the centre of controversy with reports of gentlemen visitors being entertained at the laundry. Matron held an enquiry and Hannah was given a second chance. But as a show of solidarity when her job was threatened all of the laundry maids under her left. When Hannah was exonerated, there was a rush to recruit new laundry maids.

Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset

The cook in 1779 was not so lucky. Ann Hatton was described by matron as “subject to fits. Is deaf and is often drunk”. She was swiftly given her marching orders.

Clearly these examples of employer/employee disputes have travelled through history because they have been heavily documented. Many people, however, passed happily through employ­ment at the Foundling without incident.

One of these was the Esther Yargrove who was admitted to the Hospital aged seven weeks. She suffered from scrofula (a type of tuberculosis which affected the lymph nodes) for which she may have undergone surgery. In 1758 Esther was recruited (the Foundling often employed its disabled children) and began working in the laundry. She rose to become the coatmaker and trained several other Foundling girls. In 1780 she became mistress of a ward.

By 1908, she was deaf and almost blind and was relieved of her duties but she was still paid her salary. She died in 1909.

Esther regularly expressed her gratitude to the governors for taking care of her and she made good her appreciation. After a number of personal bequests she left the remainder of her estate to the Hospital.

These invisible women are at last being given the credit they deserve.

Perhaps in time they will one day sit upstairs next to those other ladies of quality and distinction.

Ladies of Quality & Distinction runs until January 20 at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, tickets £10,


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