The following article was published in Charles Dickens’s own magazine Household Words, on 19 March, 1853. The work was co-written by Dickens and his then sub-editor W. H. Wills. Received a Blank Child is an article about the Foundling Hospital in London, a home for abandoned and destitute children set up by Thomas Coram. The title was taken from the blank entry on forms for the names of children who entered the hospital.


THE blank day of blank, Received a blank child.

Within a few weeks, this official form, printed on a piece of parchment, happened to come in our way. Finding it to be associated with the histories of more than twenty thousand blank children, we were led into an enquiry concerning those little gaps in the decorous world. Their home and head quarters whence the document issues, is the Foundling Hospital, London.

This home of the blank children is by no means a blank place. It is a commodious roomy comfortable building, airily situated, though within advertisement distance of Temple Bar, which, as everybody knows, is precisely ten minutes’ walk. It stands in its own grounds, cosily surveying its own shady arcades, its own turf, and its own high trees. It has an incredible fishpond behind it, no curious windows before it, and the wind (tempered to the shorn lambs within) is free to blow on either side of it. It preserves a warm, old fashioned, rich-relation kind of gravity, strongly indicative of Bank stock. Its confidential servants have comfortable places. Its large rooms are wainscoated with the names of benefactors, set forth in goodly order like the tables of the law. Its broad staircases, with balustrades such as elephants might construct if they took to the building arts, not only lead to long dining-rooms, long bedroom galleries, long lavatories, long schoolrooms and lecture halls, for the blank children; but to other rooms, with listed doors and Turkey carpets, which the greatest English painters have lent their aid to adorn. In the halls of the blank children, the Guards for ever march to Finchley, under General HOGARTH. Deceased patrons come to life again under the hands of KNELLER, REYNOLDS, and GAINSBOROUGH. Nay, the good Duke of Cambridge himself, in full masonic paraphernalia, condescends to become a stupendous enigma over the chimney-piece of the smallest of the blank infants who can sit at dinner. Under the roof of the blank children the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture was originated. In the chapel of the blank children there is a noble organ, the gift of HANDEL; from whose great oratorio The Messiah—also his munificent contribution for their benefit—their hospital has received ten thousand pounds. There, too, the Church service is every Sunday performed at its best, with all the assistance of devotional music, yet free from the stage-playing of any ism, not forgetting schism. There, likewise, may be heard at this present time, if we may presume to say so, one of the least conventional, most sensible, naturally eloquent and earnest of preachers.

The knowledge of all these things accumulating in our mind upon the receipt for that blank child on the blank day of blank, induced us to look more curiously into the history of the Foundling Hospital.

In or about the Christian year one thousand seven hundred and twenty-two: a good old time, when England had had too much to do, through all the good old times intervening since the days of Pope Innocent the Third, to do anything whatever for Foundlings; in or about that year there dwelt in London the gentle sea-captain, THOMAS CORAM. Although the captain had made his fortune on the American plantations, and had seen sights in his day, he came out of it all with a tender heart; and this tender heart of Captain Coram was so affected by seeing blank children, dead and alive, habitually exposed by the wayside as he journeyed from Rotherhithe (where he had set up his retreat that he might keep a loving eye on the river) to the Docks and Royal Exchange, and from the Docks and Royal Exchange home to Rotherhithe again to receive the old shipmate, who was generally coming to dinner, that he could not bear it. So, the Captain went to work like a man who had gone down to the sea in ships, and knew what work was. After conquering innumerable thorns and brambles, springing out into his path from that weedy virtue which is always observed to flower in a wrong place when nobody wants to smell it, Captain Coram found that he had got together subscriptions enough to begin a hospital for poor foundlings, and to buy an estate of fifty-six acres—out in Lamb’s Conduit fields then— for five thousand five hundred pounds. Little did the Captain think that the whole amount of that purchase-money would ever come to be annually received back in rents; but so it is at this day.

Nineteen years after good Captain Coram’s heart had been so touched by the exposure of children, living, dying, and dead, in his daily walks, one wing of the existing building was completed, and admission given to the first score of little blanks. At that time, any person who brought a child was directed “to come in at the outward door and ring a bell at the inward door, and not to go away until the child is returned (diseased children were not admitted), or notice given of its reception. But no questions whatever will be asked of any person who brings a child, nor shall any servant of the house presume to discover who such person is on pain of being discharged.” It was further desired, that each child should have some distinguishing mark or token by which it might be afterwards known, if necessary. Most of these tokens were small coins, or parts of coins; sometimes, an old silk purse was substituted; sometimes, doggrel verses were pinned to the poor baby’s clothes; once a lottery ticket was so received. The Hospital chronicles do not record that it turned up a prize—the blank child was true to its designation.

As the Hospital became more extensively known, the numbers of applicants were enormous. The outward door was besieged by women who fought and scratched their way to the bell at the inward door, and in these disturbances, as in all physical force proceedings, the strongest were successful. To put a stop to such scenes, the little candidates were then admitted by ballot.

In fifteen years’ time from the opening of the Hospital, the Governors found it necessary to apply to Parliament for assistance. It was conceded in such liberal measure, that it was thought all comers could henceforth be received. Nursing establishments were formed in various parts of the country, a basket was hung outside the Hospital gate, and an advertisement publicly announced, that all children under the age of two months tendered for admission would be received. The result was, that on the 2nd of June, 1756, the first day of such indiscriminate reception, the basket at the gate was filled and emptied one hundred and seventeen times. Fraudulent parish officers, married women who were perfectly able to maintain their offspring, parents of depraved and abandoned character (unconsciously emulative of Jean Jacques Rousseau), basketed their babies by thousands. It is almost incredible, but none the less true, that a new branch of the Carriers’ trade was commenced. Baby-carriers undertook to convey infants to the all-embracing basket from distant parts of the country, at so much per head. One man who had charge of five infants in baskets, got drunk; and, falling asleep on a bleak common, found when he awoke that three of the five were dead. Of eight infants consigned to a country waggoner, seven died before he got to London; the surviving child owing its life solely to its mother, who followed the waggon on foot to save it from starvation. Another man, established in business as a baby-carrier, with a horse and a pair of panniers, was loud in his complaints of an opposition man, “who,” said he, “is a taking the bread out of my mouth. Before he started, it was eight guineas a trip per child from Yorkshire. Now, I’ve come down a third; next week I must come down another third; that’s the way trades get ruined by over-competition.” At the time when he made this representation, he had eight children in his panniers. Many of these amiable carriers stripped off such poor clothes as the children wore, and basketed them without a shred of covering. It is related among the Hospital legends, as a remarkable instance of change of fortune, that a few years ago a rich and aged banker applied to search the register of the establishment for such information as it might afford of his own origin, when all he could learn was, that he had been taken out of the basket stark naked. That was his whole previous history.

During the three years and ten months of the existence of this system, there were dropped into the hospital-basket fifteen thousand children; and so great was the difficulty of providing for such an enormous influx, and so little were the necessary precautions understood, that only four thousand four hundred of this large number lived to be apprenticed. So the practice was discontinued, and Heaven knows, with reason! It is melancholy to think of the regrets and anxieties of the gentle Captain Thomas Coram under all these failures, and more melancholy to know that he died a very old man, so reduced in circumstances as to be supported by subscription. But, though shipwrecked here, the tender-hearted captain gained a brighter shore, we will believe, where even foundlings who have never spoken word on earth, possess their eloquence.

What genius originated the next idea, we have not discovered; but the Hospital being poor again, as well it might be, some bold spirit proposed that every child that should be mysteriously presented with a hundred pound note attached, should be received. The Governors adopted the inspiration with success; and this most reprehensible practice actually continued until the beginning of the present century. In January 1801, it was abolished, and the existing rules of admission were substituted. What these are, may be best described through our own observation of the admission of two children who happened to be brought there by two mothers while we were inspecting the place.

Each of the mothers had previously rung the porter’s bell to obtain a printed form of petition to the Governors for the admission of her child. No petition is allowed to be issued, except from the porter’s lodge: no previous communication with any officer of the Hospital must have been held by the mother: the child must have been the firstborn, and preference is given to cases in which some promise of marriage has been made to the mother, or some other deception practised upon her. She must never have lived with the father. The object of these restrictions (careful personal inquiry being made into all such points) is as much to effect the restoration of the mother to society, as to provide for her child.

The conditions having been favourably reported on, the two mothers had brought their children, and had received, filled up, the form we quoted at the commencement of this paper.

“Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. The blank day of blank, received a blank child. Blank, Secretary.

Note—Let this be carefully kept, that it may be produced whenever an inquiry is made after the health of the child (which maybe done on Mondays between the hours of ten and four), and also in case the child should be claimed.”

Then they departed, and we saw the children.

One was a boy; the other, a girl. A parchment ticket inscribed with the figures 20,563 was sewn upon the shoulder-strap of the male infant, and a similar ticket was attached to the female infant, denoting that she was 20,564—so numerous were the babies who had been there before them. To meet these present babies, a couple of wholesome-looking wetnurses had been summoned from one of the nursing districts in Kent, by whom they were immediately borne into the chapel to be baptised. Here, at the altar, we found awaiting them, the steward, the matron, the schoolmaster, and the head nurse fit representatives of the provision made for their various wants—who were to be their sponsors. The rite of baptism impressively performed by the chaplain, gave the children the additional identity of names.

These names have been a fruitful source of minor difficulty. At the baptism of the first twenty, there was present at the ceremony, a contemporary record states, “a fine appearance of persons of quality: His Grace the Duke of Bedford, their Graces the Duke and Duchess of Richmond, the Countess of Pembroke, and several others, honouring the children with their names, and being their sponsors.” Persons of quality not being free from a certain tendency to play at follow my leader, which is found to run in vulgar blood, the early registers of the Hospital swarm with the most aristocratic names in the land. When the peerage was exhausted, the names of historical celebrities were adopted; it therefore behoves a Mark Anthony Lowell, or an Editor of Notes and Queries, to take this circumstance into account in “making a note of” the pedigree of a modern Wickliffe, Latimer, Chaucer, Shakspeare, Milton, Bacon, Cromwell, Hampden, Hogarth, or Michael Angelo. Celebrated real names having, in process of time, been exhausted, the authorities had recourse to novels, and sent into the world, as serving-maids, innumerable Sophia Westerns, Clarissa Harlowes, and Flora MacIvors; innumerable hard-handed artisans as Tom Jones, Edward Waverley, Charles Grandison, and Humphrey Clinker. Then, the governors were reduced to their own names, which they distributed with the greatest liberality, until some of their name-sakes on growing up, occasioned inconvenience (and possibly scandal) by claiming kith and kin with them. The present practice is for the treasurer to issue lists of names for adoption; in which responsible duty he, no doubt, derives considerable comfort from the Post Office London Directory.

The two babies were then borne off into Kent by their respective nurses (each of whom gave a receipt for a deserted young child) with little packets of clothes, a few sensible admonitions from the matron, and the following document:

“The Child blank, No. blank, is placed under your care by the Governors of the FOUNDLING HOSPITAL, and it is expected that you will pay such attention to the said Child as will be satisfactory to the Inspector. You will receive for the maintenance of the said Child Sixpence per day, which will be paid on the first day of each month according to the number of days in the month preceding.

“Should you rear the said Child to the end of the first year, and pay such attention to it as shall be satisfactory to the Inspector, you will receive a gratuity of Twenty-five Shillings at that period.

“For clothing the said Child (after the first year) you will receive allowances as follows, viz.:

Between the Second and Third Year  
        ”          Third and Fourth Year   
        ”          Fourth and Fifth Year  0180

“For your trouble and expenses in coming to London for a Child you will receive Two Shillings from the Inspector, your coach-hire being paid by the Governors of the Hospital.

“You are to be particularly careful in preserving this parchment, which you must return with the Child whenever it shall be sent up to the Hospital, or removed from you, and it is especially required that you keep the number of the Child always affixed to its person. If you neglect this, the Child will be taken from you.”

When they should be old enough to walk, these two children would be returned to the hospital, and placed in its juvenile department. Proceeding to visit the infant school, which was their future destination, we found perhaps a hundred tiny boys and girls seated in hollow squares on the floor, like flower borders in a garden; their teachers walking to and fro in the paths between, sowing little seeds of alphabet and multiplication table broadcast among them. The sudden appearance of the secretary and matron whom we accompanied, laid waste this little garden, as if by magic. The young shoots started up with their shrill hooray! twining round and sprouting out from the legs and arms of the two officials with a very pleasant familiarity. Except a few Lilliputian pulls at our coat–tails; some curiosity respecting our legs, evinced in pokes from short fingers, very near the ground; and the sudden abstraction of our hat (with which an infant extinguished himself to his great terror, evidently believing that he was lost to the world for ever); but little notice was taken of our majestic presence. Indeed it made no sensation at all.

One end of this apartment being occupied by a grade of seats for the little inmates, is used as a convenient orchestra for a band of wind instruments, consisting of the elder boys. These young musicians, about thirty in number, now made their appearance, and commenced the performance of some difficult Italian music, executed with so much precision and spirit, as amply to justify the expressions of commendation and surprise, which we found in letters addressed to their music- master by that admirable artist, Signor Costa, and by Mr. Godfrey, one of the bandmasters of the Household troops. The ophicleide was made to emit sounds of tremendous volume and richness, by a boy hardly bigger than itself. The body of sound emitted in passages of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus was no less full and sonorous than that we remember to have heard produced by the stalwart lungs of Mr. Strutt’s band of blacksmiths at Belper.

A new supply of toys had just been brought into the room; and, during this performance, the juvenile audience were vigorously beating toy drums, blowing dumb horns and soundless trumpets, marching regiments of wooden infantry, balancing swinging cavalry, depopulating Noah’s arks, starting miniature railway trains, and flourishing wooden swords. They were all sensibly and comfortably clothed, and looked healthy and happy. They were certainly under no undue restraint. The only hush that came upon the cheerful little uproar was when the chaplain entered. He came to take out the first clarionet (and he laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder in a friendly manner which was very agreeable), who had attained the maximum age of fourteen, and was that day to be apprenticed to a lithographic printer. They went away together for some talk about his future duties, and he would receive, in common with all the other foundlings when they go out into the world, the following advice in print and parchment:

“You are placed out Apprentice by the Governors of this Hospital. You were taken into it very young, quite helpless, forsaken, poor, and deserted. Out of Charity you have been fed, clothed, and instructed; which many have wanted.

“You have been taught to fear God; to love him, to be honest, careful, laborious, and diligent. As. you hope for Success in this World, and Happiness in the next, you are to be mindful of what has been taught you. You are to behave honestly, justly, soberly, and carefully, in every thing, to every body, and especially towards your Master and his Family; and to execute all lawful commands with Industry, Cheerfulness, and good Manners.

“You may find many temptations to do wickedly, when you are in the world; but by all means fly from them. Always speak the Truth. Though you may have done a wrong thing, you will, by sincere Confession, more easily obtain Forgiveness, than it by an obstinate Lie you make the fault the greater, and thereby deserve a far greater Punishment. Lying is the beginning of every Thing that is bad; and a Person used to it is never believed, esteemed, or trusted.

“Be not ashamed that you were bred in this Hospital. Own it: and say, that it was through the good Providence of Almighty God, that you were taken Care of. Bless him for it.

“Be constant in your Prayers, and going to. Church; and avoid Gaming, Swearing, and all evil Discourses. By this means the Blessing of God will follow your honest Labours, and you may be happy; otherwise you will bring upon yourself Misery Shame, and Want.

“NOTE.—At Easter of every year, upon producing a testimonial of good conduct for the previous twelve mouths to the satisfaction of the Committee, you will receive a pecuniary reward proportioned to the length of time you have been apprenticed, and at the termination of your Apprenticeship, upon producing a like testimonial for the whole term thereof, the further sum of Five Guineas, or such smaller sum as the Committee shall consider you entitled to.”

Although we inspected the school-rooms, the dormitories, the kitchen, the laundries, the pantries, the infirmary, and saw the four hundred boys and girls go through the ceremony of dining (a sort of military evolution in this asylum), and glanced at their school-life, we saw nothing so different from the best conducted charities in the general management, as to warrant our detaining the reader by describing them.

We thought, when the male pupils were summoned by trumpet to the play ground to go through their military exercises—which they did, their drill master assured us confidentially, in a manner that would not disgrace the Foot-Guards—we had traced the entire history of the connection of a blank child with the hospital. But, as we were leaving the building, a decently dressed woman made her appearance from the lodge, to announce to the secretary, that “Joe” had arrived at the Diggings; that Joe had sent her a ten pound note, and expected to be able to transmit to the Institution a.similar token of his regard in a very few weeks; that in a short time Joe intended to remit enough money to take herself (this was Joe’s wife), their son, and their two daughters, over to join him, but that their eldest daughter being of age, and having a will of her own, refused to promise to go to Joe, because of another promise of a tender description which she had made to a worthy young ivory turner whose name was not Joe. All of which we heard with a growing curiosity to know who Joe was: more especially as Mrs. Joe was in a state of great excitement and joy about Joe.

The explanation of this little family history was, that out of a separate fund established in connection with the Hospital, Joe, an old foundling—although he had left the hospital when very young to volunteer as a cabin boy in Lord Nelson’s fleet—had, in common with some other of his school-fellows, been assisted through life with temporary loans of money, the latest of which loans had enabled Joe to seek another fortune (Joe, in the course of his career, had found and lost many fortunes) in Australia. This put us in an excellent humour for participating in the joy that there was over Joe. And we devoutly wished, and do wish, that Joe may find gold enough to provide for himself, Mrs. Joe, their son, their two daughters, and the ivory turner; and that with love and gold to spare for the gentle memory of Captain Thomas Coram, he may have this line to himself among the donors on the wall of the boys’ dining-room

              JOE     .     .     .     £500

Such is the home of the blank children, where they are trained out of their blank state to be useful entities in life. It is rich, and it is likely enough that it has its blemishes. It certainly had once, when its chief officer was a Master in Chancery; which animal is a sufficiently absurd monster for human reason to reflect upon, without being associated with blank children and a by no means blank salary. But from what we have seen of this establishment we have derived much satisfaction, and the good that is in it seems to us to have grown with its growth. Of the appearance, food, and lodging of the children any of our readers may judge for themselves after morning service any Sunday; when we think their objections will be limited to the respectable functionary who presides over the boys’ dinner, presenting such a very inflexible figure-head to so many young digestions, and smiting the table with his hammer with such prodigious emphasis: wherein it rather resembles the knock of the marble statue at Don Juan’s door, than the call of a human schoolmaster to grace after meat.

We happen to have had our personal means of knowing that in one respect the Governors of this charity are a model to all others. That is, in holding themselves strictly aloof from any canvassing for an office connected with it, or a benefit derivable from it. Canvassing and electioneering are the disgrace of many public charities of this time; and, in all such cases, but particularly where the candidates are persons of education who have known a happier and better estate, we view the preliminary solicitation and humiliation as far outweighing the subsequent advantages, and believe that there is something very rotten in the state of any Denmark that does not apply itself to find a better system for its government.