Disability at the Foundling Hospital

Records from the Ackworth (Yorkshire) branch of the Foundling Hospital provide a  rare insight into disability and childhood in the eighteenth century.

The Ackworth branch of the Foundling Hospital was the longest running branch of the Foundling Hospital outside London and received 2664 children from 19 August 1757 to 31 December 1772. It was founded to support children accepted under the ‘General Reception’ – when Parliament funded the Hospital to accept all children whose parents could not support them from 1756-60 – nearly 15,000 in all. Ackworth was forced to close because  Parliament decided to remove this funding.

A key aim of the Ackworth branch was to ‘give [the children] an early Turn to Industry by giving them constant employment’, even the ‘Lame and infirm’. The fact the Ackworth Foundlings had to work was not unusual, it was common for children from poor families. Their parents could send them to work for money, they could help at home (e.g. by spinning and washing), could be set to work in a workhouse or could be apprenticed to a trade by their parish. Ackworth was a caring institution compared to workhouses.

Ackworth staff considered the physical effect of work on the children’s health. They visited children that they had apprenticed and investigated problems. An investigation was started after a large number of apprentices working for a woollen cloth manufacturer died. The Hospital took the remaining apprentices back after an inspector found that they had become lame because they were forced to spin all day. Spinning long wool fibres required them to walk huge distances every week. The staff concluded that it would ‘be a long time before they became usefull Members [of society], or can be placed out again; not so much for want to Health but the use of their Limbs’.

The Foundling Hospital accepted children with a range of different medical conditions and disabilities and trained them in skills thought appropriate. In 1764, two girls’ medical conditions were mentioned. Clarissa Cripps, a dwarf, could ‘Knit, Sow & Spin Line’ and Ann Valley, who was piteously described as having ‘a bad look, but not Lunatic as supp.d when sent’ spun flax. In 1769, four of the thirty-three boys with disabilities worked in the textile manufactory: Philip Whitehead, Edward Barnard, Thomas Fitzland and Vernon Noak. Five of the thirty-three girls were involved with textiles: Alice Bright ‘sews a little’, Rebecca Lane spun as did Elizabeth Rickett who also suffered from bad eyes. Drucella Bruce and Mary Coleby both knitted. These nine children were classified as ‘Idiots’.

In November 1769, one of the Ackworth Governors, Dr Lee, reported on the children to the London Hospital.

we have no Child but can do something except Rebecca Baker even Bob Brown at sometimes can both pump Water and drive up the Cows. Humphrey May and Sampson Jones can work at the pump and tease Wool, Drucilla Bruce can Knitt a little but Rebecca Baker less, however both these will be taken this week and tried at Carding and Spinning: and I have the satisfaction of telling you that we leave no stone unturned to make them all of some Utility and that we have brought them all into such good order, as that, not one of them now is mischievious

This shows that the Hospital thought that making all children industrious was a key part of their education and a way to provide for them. This is also shown by in an order in 1771 that the Foundlings classified as ‘idiots’ should stay at Ackworth for the moment (while the branch was being wound down), because ‘they are taught to do something and improve very much by the Care that is taken of them’. While we shouldn’t romanticize the Hospital’s attitudes to children with disability, overall it appears that it had a positive approach to the education of children with disabilities.

Read more

  • Allin, D.S., The Early Years of the Foundling Hospital 1739/41-1773 (unpublished Ph.D. thesis)
  • Honeyman, Katrina, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Workforce (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007)
  • Humphries, Jane, Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010)
  • Mounsey, Chris (ed.), The Idea of Disability in the Eighteenth Century
    (Roman and Littlefield: London, 2014)
  • Turner, David, M., Disability in Eighteenth-century England: Imagining Physical Impairment (Routledge: Abingdon, 2012)
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