Where Did Their Clothes Go? Textile Recycling at the Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital was set up to care for children whose parents were unable to support them. The first children were accepted in 1741 and it was quickly recognised that the Hospital provided a valuable public service. From 2 June 1756 to 25 March 1760 Parliament provided funds for the Hospital to accept all children presented to it. Nearly 15,000 children aged 12 months or under were accepted.

Babies entered the Hospital wearing clothes provided by their mothers and were commonly garbed in decorative printed, checked and striped gowns. Yet these garments could not be used again by the Foundlings because the Hospital required its charges to wear a uniform. Infants were dressed identically in grey, the older children wore brown. With 15,000 children entering the Hospital in the space of four years, tens of thousands of garments were collected. So where did these clothes go?

Textiles were expensive during the early modern period because it was expensive to hand-spin, hand-weave and finish fabrics. Fibre prices fluctuated, rising during times of war. Even ragged textiles maintained value: linen and cotton rags were essential for the production of paper. Therefore there was a thriving market for second-hand textiles in the eighteenth century. In 1757, when the Hospital was overwhelmed by the clothing due to the large influx of children, the Hospital committee decided to sell the

‘old Raggs and useless things brought in with the Children of this Hospital’

because they were causing problems with ‘Vermin’.

After enquiries, the Hospital Committee decided to sell to the rag merchant Mrs Jones in Broad St Giles who would pay 28 shillings a stone for linen rags and 4 shillings 6 pence a stone for woollen rags. This was more than twice what her competitor Joseph Thompson offered for the linen and woollen rags.

Over 7 ½ months in 1759 and 1760 the Hospital accumulated more than 8000 garments, a combination of infant, child and adult clothing. The majority of these must have belonged to the babies entering the Hospital. They were sold for £21 to the cloth dealer Mrs Hilman of Covent Garden, an average of 1.6 pence per garment. In the same period more than 16 stones of rags were collected and were sold for £12 10 shillings. Flax prices jumped significantly from 1757 to 1760, therefore white linen rags were sold for a higher price, 32 shillings a stone. The woollen rag price also increased to 7 shillings a stone. The £33 10s. raised in 7 ½ months was a significant sum, enough money to fully clothe 30 infants.

This was clearly an important monetary decision for the Hospital. Although the decision to sell old clothing and rags initially related to vermin problems, these textiles retained value and to leave such vast quantities to rot was a waste of space and money.

Some points are still unclear. The Committee specified the sale of rags and ‘useless things’. This clearly included worn out garments. Implicitly clothing that did not match the Hospital’s uniform would also have been sold, including gowns, separate sleeves and forehead cloths. But were garments made from plain white linen sold? Old clouts (nappies/diapers) could have been used once a child had entered the Hospital. They did not offend the clothing policy. What about infant shirts?

I’m also not sure what woollen rags were used for – any ideas? They couldn’t be used for paper because they were animal not plant fibres.

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8 thoughts on “Where Did Their Clothes Go? Textile Recycling at the Foundling Hospital”

    1. No worries Helen! It is theoretically possible that some woollen clothes / rags could be unravelled, but it depends on the finish. Lots of woollens had felted or raised surfaces so it would be a lot of work to take them apart. It would have been much more practical to unravel stockings, but given that the children came into the Hospital at 12 months or younger, they were highly unlikely to be wearing stockings. Wool was used as ‘flocks’ to fill bed ticks so that’s a possibility, but an unpleasant one given the vermin infestation!

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      1. One answer to ‘where did the clothes go’ might be found in the pages of the 1860 publication “The History of the Shoddy Trade” by Samuel Jubb. It seems all types of textiles had their uses.
        “Mungo rag is either old or new; the old being such cloth as has been made into garments and worn; the new, tailors’ shreds or clippings from new cloth. It is the general practice, more especially in London, to keep the two sorts distinct.”
        “materials regarded at one time as almost worthless, were converted, by the improving processes of manual labour and machinery, into valuable elements of textile manufactures.”
        Seams (the refuse of rags) were used after rotting for manuring arable land (especially hop fields); also for flock for bedding and stuffing; also for prussiate of potash for dyeing.

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      2. Thanks Lucy that’s really interesting. I’ll have to investigate further when I’ve submitted my thesis. Manure and flocks seem most likely given the changes in dyeing technology by 1860, but great options! Have to be grateful to people like Samuel Jubb for writing such unusual books.

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