The Circus

The Circus


21st C
I have been inactive for the past few weeks as a result of a hip replacement procedure followed in turn by the most severe winter weather conditions experienced in Britain for many years. The Circus footpaths are like skating rinks, covered in treacherous black ice, bare of any form of gritting or salting to make them safe for pedestrians.

My only pleasure in being housebound for weeks is a feeling of heartfelt gratitude for being born in the 20th C. I can't help thinking of the cruel pain Margaret Gainsborough and her friends would have had to bear for the rest of their lives should they have suffered from arthritic hips.

A heartbreaking exhibition opened recently in London: a collection of touching memorials to more than 4,000 babies left at the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760. Most of the tiny exhibits take the form of a small swatch of distinctive fabric provided by the grieving mother, a sample taken from her own garments, or cut from the baby's clothing by nurses, for attachment to registration papers which were then bound up in ledgers, remaining in the archives today to form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th C. Many of these colourful scraps of fabric depict sentimental images of hearts, birds, butterflies, flowers or herbs, distinctive little samples most, presumably, taken from the hems or side seams of the mother's skirt.

The painful process of handing over the baby to the hospital was anonymous, a type of adoption in which the institution became in effect the infant's parent, as its former identity was effaced. The mother's name was not recorded, but many left personal messages praying for the child to be well-cared for. Few children were ever reclaimed, but the fabric token and its counterpart could be used to identify the child and its mother should that ever occur. Of the 4000 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed.

So great was the demand for shelter and so limited were the funds available (the Hospital depended solely on charity for its work) that acceptance was limited to babies aged two months or less, and only twenty infants were admitted each month. A woman bringing in her baby had to draw a coloured ball from a bag. The poor mother would pray for a white ball which allowed the child to be admitted. A black ball meant that the child was refused a place. To avoid this painful result some babies were simply abandoned on the steps of the building in the dead of night. About two thirds of the infants given to the Hospital died. Some were admitted in an appalling state of health. In 1759 one was described as being "A meer Skilinton covered with Rags with a hole in the Roofe of the mouth [sic]."

Philanthropist Captain Thomas Coram had been horrified by the sight and numbers of babies being left to die in the streets of London and he determined to set up the Foundling Hospital. Prior to this, parents of poor or illegitimate children who could not afford to feed them, had no choice but to leave them in the care of Parish poorhouses or give them to the workhouse where most would certainly die: they had a mortality rate of over 90 per cent. There were far too many unwanted babies being born in the 18th C. Coram worked hard to establish his institution and called upon all his contacts to help support his charity.

Margaret Gainsborough became familiar with Coram's work when he set up the Foundling Hospital, Britain's original home for abandoned children which became, coincidentally, through Coram's efforts, Lndon's first ever art gallery, opened to the public in 1741.

Thomas Gainsborough donated an unframed painting "The Charterhouse" which, together with works of other major artists of his day, including William Hogarth, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Allan Ramsay, were exhibited on its walls. Today, not only are their gifts widely known but, according to the National Gallery, these paintings are renowned for their exquisitely carved wooden frames custom-made by gifted 18th C craftsmen, which form an exceptionally fine collection of the classical Palladian style of framing.

About a third of the tiny babies or Foundlings as they were known, survived. They were sent out to wet nurses to be fostered until the age of about five. The Hospital then took them back and educated them until, at about ten years of age, they were apprenticed in or around London. This was not by any means a fate to be welcomed.

Mid 18th C deserting husbands and fathers were pursued by Parish authorities and, if found, were forced to pay for their bastard children. Normally, an abandoned baby became the responsibility of the Parish in which it was found. Some pregnant women deliberately headed for the wealthiest Parish within reach when birth became imminent, abandoning the baby to the mercy of officials, some of whom were not above physically manhandling a woman in labour back over the Parish boundary to prevent incurring the expense of the newborn child.
When Margaret Gainsborough was living in The Circus in Bath an Act was passed to prevent such appalling behaviour, but it proved difficult to enforce.

Mortality rate among abandoned children was high until Parliament changed the system and Parishes were forced to send the infants out to nurses in the country who were paid to care for them, following the Foundling Hospital's practice. Like those looked after by that institution, Parish children were often bound as apprentices, but at the younger age of seven, all of them becoming little more than slaves to their masters until they reached the age of 24, girls 21, unless they married earlier. These children were treated with little respect. One London Parish advertised children of both sexes as being available for inspection as possible apprentices any morning before 10 am, treating them as objects to be traded. Indeed, Parishes were prepared to pay an indivdual £2 or £3 per head to remove a child from their registers, making little effort to investigate the situation offered by their subsequent masters, living conditions, or the work they were forced to perform.

In one notorious case in 1767 which hit the headlines a few months after the Gainsborough family moved into The Circus, a Parish midwife called Elizabeth Brownrigg and her daughter were found guilty of such horrific cruelty to two of their little girl "apprentices" (one of them originally from The Foundling Hospital) that they were both prounounced guilty and hanged in front of a crowd of onlookers shouting for their blood.