When a lottery was as good as it ever got

June 28, 2002

Fortune and need, not a woman's morals, decided whether single mothers in 18th-century London could obtain charity for their children, writes Tanya Evans.

Unmarried motherhood in 18th-century London captured the public imagination in unprecedented ways. New urban public structures of institutional and non-institutional support were created in response to the problems of abandoned children and poverty.

One of these was the Foundling Hospital, which led the philanthropic campaigns of the mid-century and opened its doors to "exposed and deserted young children" in 1741. On March 25 1741, many people had been gathering for hours outside the hospital. When the doors were opened at 8pm, the porter had to work all night to prevent the throng from entering. Demand always outweighed capacity. By the turn of the century, about 18,000 children, the legitimate as well as the illegitimate progeny of London's poor, had been admitted.

From 1763, individuals hoping to gain admission for a child had to submit a petition detailing their circumstances and their need. The petitions vary in detail and length, but many tell us where mothers lived and worked, about their courtships and the births of their children. They also tell us something about their relationships with the fathers of their children, with employers, friends and families.

All petitioners drew on a rhetoric of need, focusing on their "poor state of health", "low circumstances", "great distress" and incapacity to work as well as their compound misery and melancholy. A handful of petitions suggests the use of petition writers, but most could not afford to pay a professional. In her petition, Mary Jones stated that she "had it not in my power to pay for a Petition an was oblig to wright it myself". Many could neither spell nor construct grammatical sentences, but the strength of their appeals was only emphasised as a result.

The language used in the petitions shows that women did not have to depict themselves as seduced and abandoned victims to persuade the governors to admit their illegitimate children, as some historians have suggested. Unmarried mothers did not constitute a deviant minority in London's plebeian community. They were rarely alone, infanticidal or hopeless. Eighteenth-century poor law and charitable authorities were convinced of their right to relief. Part of the project of rewriting their history has been to place their lives in a shared economic, social and cultural context. Little set them apart, then as well as now, from other poor mothers. The governors of the Foundling Hospital were remarkably indiscriminate in the petitions they passed. Women did not have to conform to a definition of "respectable illegitimacy" to have a child considered for admission.

If a petition was passed, the petitioner was requested to return with her child the following Saturday to participate in the ballot. When Saturday came, mothers cradling their babies were ushered into the hospital chapel while spectators were positioned in the gallery above. Two foundling children would pass around the room a ballot box or bag from which the women would draw one white or black ball. Those who drew a white ball were permitted admission for their children. Frances Barnes took her chance at a ballot on January 11 1772. In a petition that she submitted the following July, she explained: "I unfortunately drew a black ball." She hoped the governors would be "pleased to alow her to take the second chance of a Ballot at the next reception of Children As your petitioner being only a poor Servant and has only 4 pound a year wages as rendered her Incapable of Maintaining her Self and Child out of it". The ballot both symbolised and confirmed the role of fortune in the lives of poor women who submitted petitions to the hospital.

The vocabulary, syntax and metaphors used and the circumstances in which the petitions were written, presented and received reveal a rich and evocative language of want and necessity. The petitions of unmarried mothers rarely conform to the narrative convention of seduction so familiar to us from 18th-century fiction. They reproduce the mix of oral and literacy skills that many possessed, and display the influences of both high and low culture. The narrative structures of the petitions were influenced by many different sources - stories, ballads and chapbooks read or shared orally, and the Bible and Shakespeare.

In their appeals for charitable aid, women provided overwhelming evidence that, even though they were the "unfortunate sex", they were neither passionless nor hopeless. Women drew less on a discourse of delicate femininity than one of need. What framed most petitioners' accounts was neither seduction, shame nor secrecy but misfortune. Petitioners recounted catalogues of misfortunes, of which a bastard birth was one, in a matter-of-fact style. Sarah Hall had suffered a series of misfortunes since the age of five: "I am sorry to be thus unfortunate an particular as it is intirely out of my power to suport it as the father is absentI to had to my misfortune I have been deprived of parents ever since I have been five years old and have not a friend to apply to and no not in wat manner to support the enfant an I have thus been so unfortunate an only been a servent sence I was fourteen."

Fortune dictated whether unmarried women who participated in premarital sex were let down by their bodies - by their desire, fertility, capacity to bring a child to term and to give birth to their children. Ann Williamson "from the unfortunate accident of her lat pregnancy is reduced in Constitution and circumstances to great Distress". Mothers described the many misfortunes they experienced in their lives - death, disease, under or unemployment, seduction, betrayal, war and abandonment. But the petitions also detail their sexual desire, their love for the fathers of their children and the awareness of their rights, expectations and the obligations of the fathers of their infants. Sarah Johnson "from the most complicated misfortunes is reduced to the lowest state of wretchedness, but more particularly, for having placed too much confidence in the fair tho' unmeaning promises of one to whom my hart was entirely devoted".

Poor London women lived their lives making shift, surviving, falling in love, facing betrayal and rejection but always hoping that fortune would help them on their way.

Tanya Evans is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research.

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