The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Fostering and Adoption in 18th Century England

Fostering in the 21st Century is an often difficult job: the pay not always commensurate with the commitment required.  But while recently reading Daniel Defoe’s classic novel Moll Flanders I was reminded at how much we have moved on.

Moll, in the novel, finds herself ‘with child’ and debates her prospects facing a future as a single mother.  Moll wanted the best for her child but her dilemma was very real: a single mother could expect no help or encouragement from society and a future of extreme poverty, prostitution or crime faced her in that choice, each one carrying risks of starvation or imprisonment to both her and the child.  At best, a difficult option.

In contrast giving up her child to be cared for ‘professionally’ by another woman would not guarantee her child freedom from such poverty or shame and might actually be a death sentence for the child.  These were very real concerns.

The OUP edition of the novel provides an explanatory note (p.373): a parliamentary committee investigating the problem [of children being killed by their nurse carers] in 1716 reported that “a great many parish infants, and exposed bastard children, are inhumanely suffered to die by the barbarity of nurses, who are a sort of people void of commiseration or religion, hired by the Church wardens to take off a burden from the Parish at the cheapest and easiest rates they can; and these know the manner of doing it effectively as by the burial books may evidently appear.”  House of Commons Journals XVIII 396 (8 Mar 1716)…. and goes on to give an example (p.374) of one Eleanor Gallimore, a Parish Nurse, who in 1718 was twice acquitted of the murder of an infant in her care – in February of that year she was acquitted of murder by starvation of an infant of two months old, and in September of that year for the murder of a child by beating it with a mop-stick around the head and stamping on it.

Moll’s dilemma was compounded by an offer of marriage which would have been withdrawn had her suitor known of the existence of the child.  Eventually she was persuaded that a suitable carer could be found, Moll would pay a sum of £5 per year to the woman towards the upkeep of her child in return for the right to see the child once or twice a year, although the child would never know she was his true mother.  Or, open adoption as we might call it in the 21st Century.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, Oxford University Press World’s Classics series in paperback


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6 thoughts on “Fostering and Adoption in 18th Century England

  1. I find this very interesting for very personal reasons. It appears that both my grandparents on my mother’s side were informally adopted.

    My grandmother was born in Melbourne Australia to a young unmarried mother, and adopted informally (formal adoptions were still 30 years in the future) by a couple who had apparently had 4 children of their own, but all had died. Two years later a court case was held because the adopting “mother” had adopted another child for money, and the child had died. The jury was asked to decide if this neglect had been deliberate, to keep the money without the expense (a practice known at the time as “baby farming”), but there was not evidence to establish this. Who knows if my grandmother escaped the same fate?

    My grandfather said he was born in Lincoln in Britain, but there is no record of him or his supposed parents anywhere in the UK. The only people I can find with the names of his parents were in Victoria, Australia. I can only assume he was born under another name (whether in Lincoln or in Australia), and was either informally adopted and so took on that name, or simply wanted to change his name and chose as his alias a family he knew in Melbourne.

    So both my grandparents are a mystery, and both may have been informally adopted, with the problems you mention here, and others too.

  2. That’s really interesting – thank you for sharing. It does sound as if the Australian ‘baby farming’ is the same practice as the earlier UK ‘nurse mothers’ in Moll’s story. I didn’t mention it in the blog but the practice in the UK in the early 1900’s included poor parents ‘giving’ a child to wealthier childless couples in the extended family. There were only really Parish records and the census then so tracing family in those circumstances is pretty difficult. My grandfather was born in London around 1908 and was a ‘right cockney lad’. He was sent to a childless uncle and aunt in the naval town of Portsmouth when he was about 8; the uncle was a high ranking officer in the navy and my grandfather would have had a privileged upbringing and education, but he missed his mother and brothers (and no doubt the trouble they got in to) and ran away back home again. The other thing that happened, I think around the time of the second world war, was poor (but not orphaned) children who were sent out to Australia. Nobody kept track of who went where and even this recent event has left huge numbers unable to trace their roots.

  3. I have done a bit of family history, for my wife’s family as well as mine. My wife’s father came from poorish families in the rural area around Aberdeen, and there were cases of children disappearing from the family home (as shown on the 10-yearly censuses) and appearing again 10 years later. Some times they could be found at a relative’s house. They may have just been staying overnight, but with up to 12 children in the family, and small houses, it seems that sometimes children were spread out among relatives with more room.

    Then on the other side of my wife’s family, in Hertfordshire, it appears the son of the squire in the village “big house” fathered a child with a teenage maid. So it was arranged that a 54 year old villager accept paternity (he was presumably paid for this), the mother wasn’t named, and the child was brought up by the mother’s married sister, aged in her 20s, and later by the grandparents.

    So in 3 of the 4 main branches of my wife’s and my families, we have these irregularities and situations (and a few others, such as a woman having 6 children by 4 or so different men, in some cases unsure which of two was the father; an underage bride putting her age up to 16 to be legally married before her child was born etc!). Makes you wonder what more we haven’t been able to discover!

    I don’t think these situations necessarily mean the people were “bad”, just often poor and desperate.

  4. I had to smile – it seems little changes!! I mean that in the nicest possible way. As a society, and as social workers, we sometimes think that it’s more complicated with people moving in and out of relationships, the only difference is that it’s more ‘above board’ now.

    Children disappearing and reappearing could easily be explained by children being ‘farmed out’ to extended family members with more room, or needing help, literally on the farm in rural areas.

    If I recall from my mum’s family history delving, my great great grandfather was married to a woman who bore him three or four children, when she died her sister moved in to care for what were her nieces and nephews but because it was not deemed proper for a single man and a single woman to live together they got married and she bore him another three or four children. So the half siblings were also cousins. One of those siblings was my maternal great grandfather.

    As you say, it wasn’t about being bad but without welfare poverty led to a “needs must” set of solutions.

  5. Don’t you think finding out this stuff is fascinating? I do.

  6. Yes I agree. Being English I traced the history of my house which was built in around 1898, who had lived there, moved in and out – it started when I took off the wood cladding and found around ten layers of wallpaper, right back, I think to the very first one applied. As a kid in the 1960’s I remember my dad never took off old wallpaper, just put new paper on top of all the others. In the kitchen we found evidence of the original fireplace and outside toilet. I learned about the people who lived there, how the house was one of the first few built in what was an out of town area, etc.

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