When the Foundling Hospital was set up nearly 300 years ago to care for London’s orphans, what few could have expected is how many children would come from Africa and Asia. Even today, that lost part of the history of the Foundling Hospital is only starting to be uncovered, and a new exhibition looks at some of the unexpected stories they’ve managed to piece together.

Until now, researchers have made accidental discoveries of references to African and Asian children in the Hospital. Now, after three years of methodical research into the Foundling Hospital archive by exhibition curator, Hannah Dennett, a much broader and richer set of stories have been uncovered.

That there were orphans from Africa and Asia is not unsurprisingly, as London was a major sea trading port. Some of the visitors were former slaves from the Caribbean brought to the UK by plantation owners who wanted a novel member of staff, but most were servants brought to Britain by returning East India Company officials.

Of course, liaisons between men and women would occur and have the eventual outcome. Some of the women amongst them, as well as white women engaged in relationships with the men, sought help from the Foundling Hospital to care for their offspring.

A child accepted by the hospital would usually be sent to a wet nurse somewhere in the countryside, where a lot of rural poor could earn an extra income looking after the orphans until, if they survived, they were old enough to return to the hospital for an education.

The documents of the time are somewhat haphazard in recording parentage, and ethnicity, but some have been traced, and the letters uncovered offer an insight into life at the time for these orphans. There are few records of abuse, although it must have happened, and there is a sense of paternalism in some situations, such as the lady who wanted a “Mulato” boy for their household. Fashion for exotic children was commonplace in the upper classes.

In a way, it’s a surprise that the history of African orphans is so little known, as they appear in the art of the time. Such as the African pageboy in William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress from 1732. There are a few modern artworks in the display as well, from Alexis Peskine’s use of nails hammered into a board to form a face, to Margaret Waffington’s portrait of a modern man in an 18th-century inspired painting.

The main display though is mainly filled with extracts from the Foundling Hospital’s archives with notes about the people they took in, and — to modern eyes — the problematic language used to describe them. There’s also the issue that while the hospital was well supported by the rich of the time, how they got their riches is a problem. How many of these orphans would have needed support if there hadn’t been a trade in humans in the first place?

However, it’s done, and the exhibition tells the stories of a number of orphans where they’ve been able to trace their lives, although often the trail goes cold in early adulthood as they vanish into society. A few examples survive, usually for bad reasons, such as the lady who was arrested, or the apprentice boy who ran away.

The children whose stories are featured have been discovered through brief, fleeting, yet insightful references in the archive.

Yet their faces will never be known to us.

It’s a smallish exhibition, but it tells an interesting part of London’s history that’s still being discovered after centuries of being overlooked.

The exhibition, Tiny Traces: African & Asian Children at London’s Foundling Hospital is open at the Foundling Museum until 19th February 2023.

Entry is for the exhibition and the whole museum.

Adults £10.50 | Concessions: £8.25 | NHS staff: £4.75 | Children: Free

Tiy can just turn up and go in, but they recommend booking tickets in advance from here.


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