The long, sad history of children separated from their mothers has been the brief of The Foundling Museum in London since it opened on the site of the old Foundling Hospital, an orphanage that closed its doors in the Fifties.
Founded in 1741 by a sea captain called Thomas Coram, the hospital was financially supported by Handel – who gave them a manuscript of The Messiah, perhaps because Unto us a Child Is Born should be a moment of joy and not despair.
Originally the hospital admitted any infant up to one year old, no questions asked, but demand became overwhelming, probably because the alternative – the workhouse – was a living death for mother and baby.
By the early 19th century the focus had shifted from the needs of the child to the character of the mother – something that Charles Dickens, a later supporter, deplored.
His novel Oliver Twist (1837) rips into both workhouse piety (deserving poor) and social hypocrisy. But the men – and they were all men – who admitted or turned away infants brought to them at the hospital, had wider horizons than anything envisaged by the kind old Coram. He was fed up of seeing abandoned babies left dead or alive like unwanted kittens on the London streets. His view was simple: care for them. The Victorian moralisers were on a different mission.
The Fallen Woman, an exhibition at the Foundling Museum curated by social historian Linda Nead, is a story in images and objects of how Victorian England inflated the Christian stereotype of Woman as weak and without moral judgment, and then filled this dangerous bubble with gendered notions of purity, fear of female sexuality, and political propaganda against women’s independence from men.
A woman who had a baby out of wedlock was a social outcast. Her child was a bastard. To make this clear, the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act introduced Bastardy Clauses that made it harder and more humiliating for single mothers to obtain benefits. As wages for women were at most half those of men, even if doing the same work, few could afford to raise children on their own. Ensuring that women were economically dependent on men, while at the same time castigating them for failing to support their children when no man was present, made for an impossible situation. This was ideology dressed up as morality.
That later Suffragist slogan, Votes for Women, Chastity for Men was not anti-sex, it was drawing attention to the double standard. Men were promiscuous – look at the picture Breakfasting Out, where the tall and whiskered tomcat in a top-hat is eyeing up the little milliner. But the message here – and boy did the Victorians love a message – is that women outside the sanctuary of home are vulnerable. If anything happened between a man and a woman, what the Victorians called a “criminal conversation”, it was the woman’s fault.
Naturally, this view overlooked the fact that working-class women were not usually at home – that home was usually a hovel, that many women were raped by members of their own families, or by their employers if they were in domestic service.
On the heartbreaking petitions exhibited at the Foundling Museum from women who wanted their babies to be taken in by the hospital, the reason given is often rape or seduction. Sometimes the woman believed she would soon be married. Always the man had vanished.
For many women, the only chance of keeping a job or lodgings was to give up her child. The first stop was to pick up a form from the porter at the Foundling Hospital. Right away the porter made his own notes on the woman – was she clean and tidy, suitably behaved?
The form required all the details of the sex act – where, when, who, how many times? Many women were illiterate so someone else would have had to fill it in for them.
The next stage was to tell the whole story in person to the all-male board. This Victorian version of poverty porn was humiliating for the women – and what was it for the elderly gentlemen, as young girls described in detail their sexual liaisons?
After that came the ministrations of the fact checker: a paid snoop who went looking for information to confirm or cast doubt on the woman’s story. Crucially, a woman’s word alone was not truth enough.
The exhibition displays supporting letters, usually from males, who are, of course, to be trusted, even though it is males who clearly couldn’t be trusted not to get a woman pregnant or run off.
The purpose is always to discover, by a moral lottery masquerading as facts, which babies are “fit objects” for relief.
For those women whose applications were rejected – and anyone who had lived as a mistress would be rejected –the exhibition’s sober paintings of death and drowning show us what lay ahead.
And if the woman didn’t have the decency to die, look at Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite postcard to fallen women. The usual dreamy colours and abundant hair. Tones of red and green and gold. Then spot the giant rat at the feet of the woman who can only peep at her own previous carefree respectability. Sewers, gutters, filth, refuse. The message of the rat is clear. Rossetti of course kept a number of mistresses during his life.
If a child proved to be a “fit object”, he or she would be given a new name and sent to foster parents for the first five years of life. On the child’s fifth birthday the foster parents had to return him to the Foundling Hospital for an institutional upbringing designed to equip Janet or John for their future in the workforce. Love was not part of that upbringing.
Mothers could write to ask about their children but they could not visit them. All mothers were given a receipt for the child, including the original name, but only the hospital knew if John Smith was now called East Street or Julius Caesar. The naming process was eccentric. There’s a long list of names at the museum – a sad alphabet of loss.
Understanding early attachment, loss, and the need for love is not something the stiff-upper lip British have been good at. We have a dismal record of removing infants and children from their mothers while trumpeting family values.
From the Twenties, until the last aircraft left the runway in 1970, around 150,000 small children were sent to Australia and Canada under the Commonwealth Child Migrant Programme. (It interests me that this isn’t anywhere in the news at the moment as “big-hearted” Britain looks to settle 20,000 Syrian migrants over the next five years).
The programme officially ended in 1967 – not an arbitrary date. In 1968 the birth control pill was made available to single women. At last in charge of our own reproduction, unwanted pregnancies dropped dramatically.
We don’t talk about unmarried mothers and fallen women any more. Everybody knows somebody who is a single parent and there is no social stigma attached to that now, though there is often economic hardship.
My own mother was 17 when I was born. She couldn’t afford to keep me. It was not her fault. I too have another name. I too spent six months before my adoption in a narrow crib in a long room; a room full of other leftover babies.
Walking around the Foundling Museum’s exhibition I am upset and hopeful in equal measure. We do know what children need now. We don’t blame women for everything. We are building a better society. It’s worth revisiting the past to remind ourselves that we really don’t want a return to Victorian values.
The Fallen Woman is at the Foundling Museum, London, until Jan 3, 2016; foundlingmuseum.org.uk.