The petitions below come from a recently concluded exhibition, “The Fallen Woman,” at London’s Foundling Museum. In the pair of 19th-century documents, two unmarried mothers, Damaris Phillips and Anne Giddings, ask the Foundling Hospital to take their illegitimate children into its care. Both petitions were rejected.
The hospital, built in 1739, tried several less stringent admissions schemes in the 18th century, the unforeseen effects of which were dramatically reported by Charles Dickens in an 1853 magazine article. When, Dickens and his co-author W.H. Wills wrote, the hospital arranged a system whereby any child could be surrendered into a basket hung outside its gate, the results were pandemonium:
From the 2nd of June, 1756, the first day of such indiscriminate reception, the basket at the gate was filled and emptied one hundred and seventeen times. Fraudulent parish officers, married women who were perfectly able to maintain their offspring, parents of depraved and abandoned character … basketed their babies by the thousands.
The organization changed its admissions policy again in the early 19th century, hoping to focus their efforts on rescuing babies of women who still had a hope of re-attaining conventional respectability, as those running the hospital defined it. The new policy required mothers to have been seduced and deceived; the babies looking for sanctuary should be the results of their first illegitimate pregnancies. Evidence of a mother’s pattern of pregnancies, or her cohabitation with the baby’s father, would disqualify a child from admission.
During the Victorian era, writes the Museum’s director Caro Howell, these pre-printed petitions were only “the first step in a very thorough investigative process that was designed to determine both the circumstances behind her baby’s birth and the mother’s moral character.” The museum retains some evidence of these investigations in its archives; supplementary letters for the Phillips and Giddings petitions can be read below.
An online gallery on the Foundling Museum’s website gathers documents from the exhibition, as well as paintings by Victorian artists depicting “fallen women” in disgrace.