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Moll’s dilemma was compounded by an offer of marriage which would have been withdrawn had her suitor known of the existence of the child.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