Impact of the Dublin Foundling Hospital on Childcare

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A vulnerable child suffering from desertion, the death of its parents, or extreme poverty is the epitome of ‘deserving’ in the eyes of most Christians. Yet, prior to the opening of the Dublin Foundling Hospital, these children found themselves lacking even the most basic necessities of life. While some were lucky enough to be cared for by family members or people within their parish, the vast majority were forced to turn towards begging. During the eighteenth century, the begging problem became a major concern for the middle and upper classes. Decribed by Jonathan Swift, the streets of Dublin were “crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags…”[1] At the time, there was no government system of relief for the poor. This would change in the year 1703, following the opening of a workhouse at St. James Gate. However, it must be recognized that the opening of the institution was less focused on poor relief and more of an effort to solve the begging problem in Dublin. Children were allowed to enter the workhouse, as they were seen as a nuisance to the upper classes. It is cited that the children’s cries kept them from getting proper sleep.[2] Therefore, the workhouse became the dumping grounds for these impoverished children, so much so that shortly after its opening it abandoned its original purpose as a workhouse. Thus showing a clear transition from general poor relief to relief focused on children. This essay will determine whether or not the hospital reached its two main objectives. It will also explore the conditions in which the children were forced to endure. In addition to this, it will examine the aspect of family, that is both the family that these children left behind, as well as the relationships they gained through this system. Furthermore, it will showcase the all encompassing concept of religion, and its role within the hospital. Clearly showing the ways in which the children became trapped in a religious custody battle between the Protestant institution and their own Catholic surroundings. Most importantly, this essay will recognize that several problems that originated with the Dublin Foundling Hospital continued to affect the workhouse and religious volunteer societies that replaced it.

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Some context is necessary in understanding the changing role of the Dublin Foundling Hospital, and its gradual expansion. As previously mentioned the original goal of the St. James Gate Workhouse was to eliminate the begging problem, not necessarily relieve beggars themselves. Due to the high amount of child beggars and limited space, there were restrictions set as to how many children could enter the workhouse. From its opening in 1703, the workhouse would only accept children from the ages of five to sixteen.[3] Any child under the age of five was still expected to be cared for by people within their parish. Yet, even with these provisions it was reported that half of the inmates of the Dublin Workhouse were children in the year 1725.[4] This demonstrates the immense amount of impoverished children within the city. Unfortunately, due to the set limitations of the workhouse, many children remained on the streets, or met an even worse fate. Mothers began to murder their children, in an attempt to escape the burden of caring for them. This practice was known as infanticide, and was extremely common, especially for illegitimate children.[5] Illegitimate children were not only an economic burden, but led to a loss of status and loss of support from their families. Therefore, bastard children were more subject to this horror than their peers. If not victim to infanticide, the child was deserted. In this case, the parish was expected to care for the child. Naturally, the parishes were unhappy with the added financial burden. Parishes began a process called ‘dropping,’ in which they would secretly transport children into other parishes, attempting to pass off the burden to another district.[6] In response to the growing infanticide rates, desertion rates, and resistance from parishes, the law was changed. By 1730, all children were to be admitted into the workhouse, regardless of age.[7] This law officially shifted the institution from the St. James Gate Workhouse to the Dublin Foundling Hospital. In order to adapt to its new purpose, two separate departments were established for the children: one for infants and the other for grown children.[8] The original plan was for children over the age of two be sent out to nurse until age nine. They would then be returned to the workhouse where they would be educated and taught a trade. After their education, they would enter apprenticeships under Protestants. The stated objectives of the institution were two-fold: ‘First, to prevent the exposure, death, and actual murder of illegitimate children and secondly to educate and rear children taken charge by the institution in the Reformed or Protestant faith …’[9] It will become painfully clear through the remainder of this essay that both of these objectives were not met.

While it is clearly stated, that the hospital is concerned with the well-being of the children, the circumstances within the hospital do not reflect this concern. Conditions within the hospital were vile at best. This is clearly reflected in the high mortality rates. During the first seven years of the Dublin Foundling Hospital, 3,235 children had died out of 4,025 received.[10] The hospital dismisses the majority of these deaths to the children being ill upon admission. However, it is clear that neglect was a major factor as well. This can be clearly shown through the heinous conditions in which ill children were expected to endure. It is reported that if a child was unwell, they were to not receive treatment of any kind. They were simply sent to the infirmary to die, but not before being stripped naked, so that their clothes may be given to other children. They were then laid naked in a single cradle, alongside five to six other unwell infants.[11] The cradles themselves were crawling with bugs, and the remnants of diseases left behind from the previous victims. The physician reported that many of the ill children would have been able to make a full recovery had they been given proper attention and set in better conditions.[12] General reports state that there was no heating of the building, so children were forced to huddle together in order to keep warm. The windows were without glass and the roof had holes in it, so the children were regularly exposed to the elements.[13]  The children’s clothing was usually ripped, and many lacked shoes. Most of the children were underfed and malnourished. The diet for infants was just bread and water. The Matron admits that this food was not adequate to sustain life.[14] Children were harshly punished for stealing food or attempting to run away. Punishments included being sent to the ‘dungeon’, a dark room in the basement of the hospital, or being whipped by cane and burch. The punishments are documented in the hospital’s minutes reports. For example, “Ordered, -That William Mills be confined… and whipt three several days… brought to the workhouse, put in the dungeon, and tyed with a chain to a piece of log…”[15] In the latter days of the foundling hospital, these cruel methods of punishment were abandoned, and measures such as the ‘dungeon’ were eliminated. The poor conditions within the hospital did not go unnoticed by the government, and there were several reform campaigns. Reformers such as Lady Arabella Denny did help the cause, and were able to improve the living conditions. Denny contributed large sums of money to improve the state of the building, and under her administration the mortality rate decreased at a significant rate. In the ten years that Lady Arabella held a position in the hospital, only 1,990 infants out of 8,726 died.[16] Nevertheless, despite Denny’s improvements the hospital remained an extremely dangerous place for a child. In hindsight, it seems tragically ironic that a place created to decrease the death and abandonment of children became a place in which children died in alarmingly high rates.

Relationships and emotions are often easily overlooked by historians. Therefore, the relationships between these abandoned children and their birth families is not well covered. The preservation of letters to the Dublin Foundling Hospital are extraordinary sources because they give historians insight into the mind of an impoverished mother dealing with separation from her child. It must be stated that the vast majority of these letters are not written by the mothers themselves as they were likely illiterate, nevertheless, their feelings are still well conveyed. The letters give a basic reasoning as to why the child has come to be in the Foundling Hospital, as well as the emotional toll that is felt in its aftermath. For example, the mother of Bridget Kearney, reasons she had to give up her daughter because she was, “… poor at the time, and unable to support her.”[17] This mother, like many others, was abandoned by her husband and left to care for the child on her own. This proves that women are more susceptible to poverty than men, and are often left to deal with the burden of raising a child alone. Another case seen frequently in the letters relates to mothers who feel a great deal of shame for having an illegitimate child, thus highlighting the religious aspect of having a child out of wedlock. Whatever the reason is for the child to be sent away, it is blatantly clear in nearly all cases that poverty is the force that tears families apart. Each letter contains a great deal of anxiety for the children and their well-being. Many mothers are unable to deal with the separation and express their regret. In the majority of the letters, the mothers beg for the hospital to return the child to them. The letters that do not ask for the child to be returned, ask of the status of the child, still showing a clear bond between a mother and child. One of the more interesting letters is concerning Charlotte Fielding. Her mother, Hessy Harte asks for Charlotte to be returned, just as most letters do. However, the very last sentence of the letter states, “She is a Catholic.”[18] This is very unusual. It is possible that Harte believed the hospital would return her child so that it may be reared as a Catholic. Of course, this reasoning is not well thought out. In fact, this would seem to inspire the Protestants to tighten their hold of the child and ensure that she is reared a Protestant, coinciding with the second objective of the organization. Nevertheless, it is clear that while the physical relationships between mother and child were shredded by poverty, a strong bond still remained.

As previously stated, one of the main goals of the hospital was to “educate and rear children in the Reformed or Protestant Faith, and thereby to strengthen and promote the Protestant Interest in Ireland.”[19] However, in a predominantly Catholic Ireland, it was nearly impossible to find a sufficient number of Protestant nurses. Therefore, the vast majority of children were sent off to be raised by Roman Catholic nurses. These nurses were usually low class women from rural areas, who would receive an advanced annual payment to care for the children. There were flaws with receiving the payment in advance, as some of the children were killed shortly after the payment was received.[20] In contrast, some nurses formed extraordinary bonds with the children. There are several cases in which the nurses saw the children as their own, and refused to return the children to the hospital.[21] These strong bonds caused religious tensions as the children began to adopt Catholicism, under the care of the nurses. This became a major problem when the children were later returned to the hospital. Upon their return, they would reject Protestantism. The institution had no tolerance for this, and began to force the religion on the children. It is reported that on Fridays and fast days the children were forcefully fed broth with meat.[22] This is significant, because at the time, it was a sin for Catholics to eat meat on these days. This shows the blatant disregard and disrespect towards Catholicism within the institution. In addition to cruel measures such as these, the institution began attempting to limit children’s time with their Catholic nurses. Previously, the children were to stay with their nurses until their ninth year. However, after 1801, children were to be returned at seven years old. In addition, upon their return, the children were expected to spend at least three years being educated, especially regarding religion. Wodsworth states, “The Tenets of the Christian Religion were flogged into the boys, and they were caned into the girls.”[23] Once again, showing the forcefulness that the Hospital used to push their own religious agenda. Once the child was deemed educated, they were sent into apprenticeships under Protestants. This process was actually referred to as ‘hiring out or farming out.’ Yet, despite these drastic measures to push Protestantism, the new system still was not sufficient. It became clear that the Catholics had already made religious impressions on the children even before they turned seven. The government decided to transfer all children over four years of age from Catholic nurses to Protestant nurses. Of course, there were not enough Protestant nurses, so many children were sent back to the hospital instead.

 This new law of separating children from their Catholic nurses created emotional distress for the children. Any bonds formed between children and their nurses had been snapped. Many nurses had taken on a paternal role for the children, so in way children had been separated from their families twice. This is especially true in some cases. There are several instances in which mothers had collaborated with the people in charge of assigning the wet nurses. The mothers would then be assigned to nurse their own children.[24] Many children were interviewed after their separation and expressed deep sorrow following their detachment, and expressed a deep need to be returned. This can be seen in examinations of the children that had been returned to the hospital. Eliza Stroaker was asked several questions regarding the care she received under her Catholic nurse. Her answers give an incredible insight to the bond that she shared with her nurse, and the physiological effects that impact her after their separation.

Were you happiest with your nurse when attending at the school, or at the Hospital? I was a great deal happier with my nurse. I am always crying now.

Is there anything that vexes you in the Foundling Hospital at present? yes; I cannot see my mother.

You call Margaret Burns (nurse) your mother? Yes.

Do you think she was your real mother? No, but she is the best mother I have. I was only three days old when she got me and she had me fourteen years. [25]

It is clear here that these children were far happier with their foster families than would ever be possible within the hospital. Yet, the institution ignored the happiness of the children, in favor of furthering their own religious beliefs.

 The process of hiring out had its own flaws. There were so many children that had been apprenticed out that it was impossible for the institution to ensure their well being. Due to this negligence, there were several cases of ill treatment, despite the fact that they were only sent off to ‘honest persons’ of the Protestant faith. It is reported in the apprentice register that William Beckett was ‘beat continuously by his master without any fault on his part.’[26] Children were usually sent out around the age of twelve and were expected to stay until sixteen. An employer may hold as many as six children at a time. Due to their mistreatment, many children ran away, while many of the girls turned towards prostetution or eloped rather than stay with their masters.[27] This is ironic, as children were only sent out to ‘honest Protestants’, so the high levels of abuse and mistreatment seems to discredit the church.

Ultimately, in 1829, parliament determined that there were enough alternative resources for children that the Dublin Foundling Hospital was no longer necessary. However, evidence from Appendix A from the first report of the Royal Commission on Condition of Poorer Classes in Ireland clearly shows how there is a not a sufficient amount of resources for children, as many reports claim there is now nowhere for them to go.[28] It is likely that parliament knew the Dublin Foundling Hospital was too dangerous to keep open, yet, they did not want to discredit the Protestant church by condemning it. In conclusion, the main objectives of the hospital were never met. For example, it did lower the rates of infanticide, yet, the rates of mortality within the Hospital seemed to offset this improvement. Furthermore, the children who did survive were horribly treated and wildly unhappy within the institution. Secondly, while the Hospital attempted to rear the children as Protestants, the vast majority adamantly rejected the church. The ones who did affiliate with Protestantism only did so to avoid punishment. In short, the Hospital is a blatant failure. It is crucial to realize that the failures of the hospital were to continue on even after its closure. The workhouses that opened in 1838, following the passage of the Irish Poor Law, provided relief for children. However, just as in the hospital, conditions were horrid and mortality rates within such institutions were extremely high. Other organizations that emerged to offer relief for children, such as orphanages, also had problems. The main one being the religious battle. Protestant and Catholic Orphanages would fight over the children, in order to claim more believers in their respective denominations. All of these problems had been introduced within the Dublin Foundling Hospital and would continue on long after its closing, leaving a dark cloud over the children of Dublin for years to come.

Bibliography

 

Primary sources:

  • ‘A list of the poor in the city workhouse from their several parishes with their age and quality. March 20th day. 1725-26.’ (1726), Marsh’s Library, Dublin.
  • The House of Lords the sessional papers 1801-1833: vol. 215, 1826-7, (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=38ZbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA131&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q=Eliza%20&f=false) [accessed 22 October 2019].
  • Royal commission of inquiry poorer classes appendix A, ‘Deserted and Orphan Children’ (1835), pp. 1-48.
  • Gilbert, J.T., Calendar of ancient records of Dublin, (Dublin, 1896), VI.
  • Swift, Jonathan, A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents, or the country, and for making them beneficial to the publick (Dublin, 1729).
  • Wodsworth, W.D., A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital of Dublin from the year 1702 (Dublin, 1876).

 

Secondary sources:

  • Coakley, Davis, and Coakley, Mary, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, Dublin (Dublin, 2018).
  • Cooper, June, The Protestant Orphan Society and Its Social Significance in Ireland 1828-1940 (Manchester, 2015).
  • Daly, Mary E., Dublin: The Deposed Capital. A social and economic history  (Cork, 1984).
  • Luddy, Maria, Women in Ireland 1800-1918: A Documentary History (Cork, 1995).
  • Robins, Joseph, The Lost Children: History of the Charity Child in Ireland, 1700-1900 (Dublin, 1980).
  • Robins, Joseph, “Religious Issues in the Early Workhouse,” in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 57, No. 225 (Spring, 1968), pp. 54-66.

[1] Jonathan Swift, A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people from being a burthen to their parents, or the country, and for making them beneficial to the publick (Dublin, 1729), P. 5.

[2] J.T. Gilbert, Calendar of ancient records of Dublin (Dublin, 1896), VI, P. 90.

[3] Davis Coakley & Mary Coakley, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, Dublin (Dublin, 2018), P. 26.

[4] ‘A list of the poor in the city workhouse from their several parishes with their age and quality. March 20th day. 1725-26.’ (1726), Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

[5] Maria Luddy, Women in Ireland 1800-1918: A Documentary History (Cork, 1995), P. 7.

[6] Coakley, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, P. 26.

[7] W.D. Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital of Dublin from the year 1702 (Dublin, 1876), P. 11.

[8] Joseph Robins, The Lost Children: History of the Charity Child in Ireland, 1700-1900 (Dublin, 1980), P. 15.

[9] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 2.

[10] Robins, The Lost Children, P. 17.

[11] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 42.

[12] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 5.

[13] Coakley, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, P. 44.

[14] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 25.

[15] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 27.

[16] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 36.

[17] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 13.

[18] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 17.

[19] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 2.

[20] Coakley, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, P. 33.

[21] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 2.

[22] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 5.

[23] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 27.

[24] Coakley, The history and heritage of St James’s Hospital, P. 36.

[25] The House of Lords the sessional papers 1801-1833: vol. 215, 1826-7, P. 82. (https://books.google.co.in/books?id=38ZbAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA131&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q=Eliza%20&f=false) [accessed 22 October 2019].

[26] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 23.

[27] Wodsworth, A History of the ancient Foundling Hospital, P. 23.

[28] Royal commission of inquiry poorer classes appendix A, ‘Deserted and Orphan Children’ (1835), pp. 1-48.

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