“During the depression, when families didn’t have enough money to support their children, they’d put them on a train and hoped that someone would pick them up who was able to support them.”
Orphans can be divided into two basic groups. The term “orphan” refers to children who have lost one or both parent by death. Children in the other smaller group, called “foundlings,” are orphaned by abandonment by their parent(s). This does not include children put up for adoption. Most foundlings never know their parents, even though some may be reunited later in life.
Foundlings are almost always abandoned by their mothers. They don’t intend that child should die, but are incapable of caring for the child either emotionally or financially; and for some reason they are reluctant to contact a social services organization for assistance.
A foundling generally has no name and no known parents. Most are discovered in a place where they are likely to be found such as a church or hospital doorstep. This is different from “feral children” who, while still abandoned, are missing either by accident, or are stolen, or left to die of exposure.
In ancient times the sanctity of young life was not always assured. In Greek and Roman culture, a newborn child was not considered as a fully viable human being.
The first serious attempts to rescue abandoned children were due to the early Christian community in Rome. Their influence urged Emperor Valentinian to decree that infanticide was a crime, itself punishable by death. Justinian abolished the practice of making rescued children into slaves; placing them under the care of the Christian Church.
In medieval France, marble basins were placed near the church door so that parents could place their infant children so the church could assume care of them. The first “foundling asylums” were established in Milan in 787, Montpellier in 1070, and in Rome in 1198. They were associated with early hospitals which appeared during these same times.
During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the number of foundling asylums grew across Europe. This included Einbeck (1200), Florence (1316), Nuremberg (1331), Paris (1362), and Vienna (1380).
Most of these asylums had at least one design feature in common. It was a revolving crib built into the wall so that one half of it was always on the outside of the building. If an abandoned infant was placed in this crib, rotated to be inside, and a bell rung, the caregivers inside would go the crib to retrieve the child. The sad part of this is that the person abandoning the infant was completely hidden; and they apparently felt absolved from what they had done as evidenced by the huge increase of illegitimacy and abandoned infants. Therefore this practiced was almost everywhere.
Foundling asylums, however, did not become common in most areas of Europe. People still placed their small children at church doors. Those that did exist were greatly overcrowded, so the process of foundling adoption was intensified, as was done with other orphans.
Enlighenment During the 18th and 19th Centuries
Joseph II (1741-1790) of Austria became the Holy Roman Emperor at age 21 and immediately began changing things. Included in the 10,000 edicts he made during his reign was to make formal education available to all children, advocate religious tolerance, and encourage a spirit of service among his subjects. He is considered one of the greatest “Enlightenment” monarchs of Europe.
The London Foundling Hospital
And still others were brought to the London Foundling Hospital which was established in 1739. This was the only institution of considerable size devoted exclusively to foundlings. It was founded by the philanthropist Thomas Coram. Its goal was to care for the “exposed and deserted young children” of London.
In 1756, Parliament decreed that all children offered up should be accepted, and that places across the country be designated where abandoned children could br brought, then moved to the London facility. Almost every child admitted to the Foundling Hospital was the first born to a mother who was unmarried.
The hospital was relocated outside of London prior to WWII; the original structure was demolished. But the “Foundling Museum” in London has maintained the history and artifacts of the original.
Scotland never had a foundling asylum but did place foundlings in workhouses or boarded them out to families. In Ireland, the care of foundlings was accomplished through the Catholic Church.
In the 19th Century UK, foundlings were sometimes given a surname that reflected the day they were found. They were frequently given a surname reflecting the day, or season, they were found.
In post-Revolution France, all foundlings were considered as wards of the state. Additionally, an early form of welfare was instituted by paying subsidies to the mothers of illegitimate children in order to keep the children in a home.
The U.K.’s “Infants Relief Act of 1874”, stated that every child under two years of age that is cared for by a non-family person (for hire) became under public guardianship. But the actual expense of caring for foundlings still remained the obligation of the church.
Italian and Russian Efforts
Today Italy, in proportion to its population, surpasses all other nations in the number of institutions devoted exclusively to the care of foundlings. In 1888, the Rovigo Provence established a system in which all mothers who acknowledge their infants are supported by the government for a year and a half. During that time, many mothers decided to retain custody of their child. This was a program which benefited the child and was less expensive to the community.
By 1898, the number of Italian foundling asylums was 113. They cared for over 100,000 children (the Florence asylum was the largest sheltering 6,500).
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, Russia had two very large foundling asylums that were established by Catherine II. The one in St. Petersburg cared for over 33,000 foundlings, the one in Moscow over 39,000. One policy was to encourage the mother, if known, to nurse her child, and to pay her for her service. This effort was to try to establish a bond between mother and child.
Foundlings in the Present Day
In Europe, foundling homes and work houses are largely a thing of the past. Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, have a program called “Babyklappen.” After leaving her baby, a mother has six weeks to return and claim the child. If she does, the situation is managed by adoption professionals and not the police. Charges are not filed. The program is being expanded to other German cities.
But in most cases in the U.S., placing children, orphan of foundling, into private homes under public supervision is still the preferred method of care.
Sadly, the number of foundlings doubled during the 1990’s in the UK. The reasons are still not understood.
Today’s Third World countries are a patchwork of ancient traditions, social upheaval, and economic chaos. Foundlings continue to exist and suffer as a result.
Child abandonment can be due to complex reasons. In some cultures acknowledging a child’s birth might actually put the mother’s life in danger; or the loss of virginity could make a young woman unmarriageable. There may be no one to help a new mother; social services and adoption agencies rarely exist. Even the child itself may be in danger. In some parts of the world twins are considered demonic. Overall there is a shared sense of desperation and shame which causes mothers to keep the birth a secret from her parents or doctor.
Psychological and Sociological research into parental motives for abandonment and the effects on the child have yielded some truths.
2. In every case a reasonable amount of effort should be made to discover who the parents are and compel them to assist in caring for the child.
3. Charities are burdened by the volume of cases that should be borne by the parents.
4. Efforts toward giving the child the benefits of a mother’s care, and the parent an appreciation of their responsibility need to be properly funded.
5. The continued use of foundling asylums may be unwise due to marginal conditions and a higher death rate among their occupants.
6. The smaller expense of the family out placement system, and the fact that families are the natural home for infants, makes this process of greater value.
7. Finding suitable family homes in which to place abandoned children, or any children, is greatly influenced by the present economy.
Nebuchadnezzer II, King of Babylon (605-562 BCE)
Henry Morton Stanley
Foundlings are frequently portrayed in literature as symbols of early struggles that are overcome including:
Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome)
Tarzan (by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (by Victor Hugo)
Tom Jones (in “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling” by Henry Fielding)
Eppie (in “Silas Marner” by George Eliot)
Heathcliffe (in “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte)
Benjamin Button (in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”)
Orphans usually come with at least some history, foundlings come with nothing.