The Foundling Hospital

The ‘Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’  opened in 1741 in Hatton Garden, London.

By 1745 a purpose-built Foundling Hospital was opened at Lambs Conduit Fields.  It became famous not only for Thomas Coram’s vision of helping to prevent the abandonment of London’s babies, but also for the Benefit concerts given by the composer Handel [the first London performance of the Messiah drew such crowds that another performance was given.]  Handel raised over £6000 for the hospital in his lifetime. Fame spread also for the Art Collection which the artist Hogarth, together with the then Treasurer, Taylor White, did  much to popularise by encouraging emerging artists to donate their paintings and sculpture. Hogarth made the original designs for the emblem and shield as well as  designing the children’s distinctive uniforms of the hospital,

People flocked to the concerts and to see the paintings displayed in the elegant  rooms of the hospital and the popularity of the experience  no doubt  sowed the seed for the first public art gallery in London.

Whilst  Thomas Coram was campaigning for a Royal Charter to open the Foundling Hospital [The word Hospital here meaning a place of refuge not a place for caring for the sick] he would not have imagined that within eighteen years  of its  opening,  there would be a further three Branch hospitals.  One in Yorkshire, one in Shrewsbury and one in Aylesbury and one planned for Westerham in Kent. Barnet and Chester later brought the total of Branch Hospitals to six.

Why Branch Hospitals were opened

The  London Foundling Hospital had admitted almost 15,000 infants in just under 4 years at an exceptional time known  as the General Reception (1756-1760). 

The hospital had asked for and  received  Government funding to enable them to take in more children. They received these funds  but with the proviso that they were to take every infant brought to them.

Many of the children being brought in were in such a poor state of health that many of them died. Of those that survived a total of  12469  were sent to the country to be nursed.

To cope with this number of children, Branch hospitals were needed.

Westerham was to be the fourth of the branch  hospitals and the third most important.

Why was a Branch Hospital opened in Westerham?

Not only was Westerham a remarkably healthy Parish but it was barely 20 miles from  London and the main hospital, making communication and supplies economic.

Importantly, it was already an area where individual Foundling babies and infants were already  ‘at nurse’ in the town and in the nearby villages of Sundridge and  Brasted, then further afield to Edenbridge, Hever and Limpsfield.

The women who looked after the Foundlings were paid by the  Foundling Hospital through a local Inspector. The women were known as ‘Wet Nurses’ and  took the Foundlings  into their cottages and brought them up until they were old enough to be ‘returned’ as ‘Grown Children’ to the London or a Branch hospital for their education and maintenance. By this time the children would have been between five  and seven years old.

Westerham had a number of wealthy landowners who were invited to become governors of the hospital.  Governors  made donations or paid a subscription, which was how the hospital at first raised all of its funds.

One  landowner was John Warde of Squerryes [Court] in Westerham. Warde  and his wife Kitty were  ‘Inspectors’ – in charge of overseeing the standard of care of the foundlings ‘at nurse’ in the area.

Another governor was Thomas Ellison. Thomas had inherited from his father, Francis Ellison, a  house in Westerham town called Spiers. This house is now known as Quebec House (NT) which to this day still evokes the eighteenth Century home.

Francis Ellison had leased Spiers to  Edward Wolfe,  General Wolfe’s father. Wolfe was famously born in the local vicarage,  spent his youth in Westerham,  and was a childhood friend of  George Warde, brother of John.  Wolfe  died, victorious, at the Battle of Quebec in 1759.

Thomas Ellison  also owned a house named Wellstreet, barely 2 miles outside the town. This house has been known since the 19th Century  as Chartwell and is now a  treasured National Trust property . It was the former home  of  Sir Winston Churchill, soldier and politician from 1923 until his death in 1965.

Thomas Ellison was also a  governor of the Foundling Hospital, and when it was decided in 1759  to open a Branch hospital in Westerham, he offered a lease on Wellstreet.  The house had  farmland,  barns, cottages and outhouses and a hop garden.  John Warde had offered building land, but the labour and materials cost was deemed too high for the limited Foundling Hospital funds. The Lease, after many negotiations [Ellison wanted the right to take his marble fireplaces if he wished, and to ‘Fish and Fowl’ on his land] a Lease was agreed in 1760.

Wellstreet became known as the Westerham Branch Foundling Hospital.

The Branch  was open from July 1760 to November 1769; a bare nine years.

In total 469 children went through the doors of Wellstreet, with a maximum of 235 Foundlings accommodated at any one time.

John Warde became Treasurer, and the long serving Secretary, or Master of the Branch was  John Saunders. From the Minute taking and accurate record keeping of Saunders, and  the correspondence of both Warde and Saunders,  we not only confirm the Foundling Hospital reciprocal records, that around a hundred children lived in the main house, but learn much of the day to day life of the children at Wellstreet. In 1764, when a small house and later a barn on the land were converted a further 130 children were accommodated.

Jonathan Brown JPEG

An artist’s impression of  how Wellstreet (Chartwell) might have looked c1760 by Jonathan Brown 2016

Life at Wellstreet in the Westerham Branch Foundling Hospital

The first meeting of the Westerham Foundling Hospital Committee was held  at the George Inn [Now known as the George and Dragon] at Westerham on 26 June 1759.

As soon as Wellstreet was running as a Branch hospital, the Committee meetings were held in the main house every Thursday at 11 o’clock. A ‘large oval table’ was ordered for the Committee room. Those present were Jonathan Chilwell, in the Chair,   John Warde, Thomas Ellison, Pendock Price,  Ralph Manning, Charles Dennis, J. Streatfield, Dr Thomas Lane.

We know from household accounts that the house had been partitioned into dormitories or ‘wards’ and that it accommodated  about 95 children. The children slept three to a bed – no doubt unwittingly contributing to the spread of illnesses.

A nearby house or cottage  on the estate was converted, and then later  a corn-barn, so that the number of children accommodated by the mid 1760’s was between 225-235 children.

The house was run by a Secretary or Master  a Mr John Saunders, (who it is thought later purchased Quebec House) and by a Matron  Mrs Ann Wadham. A later Matron was Mrs Williamson. The Matron was responsible for the care of the children as well as managing the household and a staff of at one time 18 nurses.

Over the 9 years the hospital employed a total of 90 people to run the house and look after the children.

Mrs Wadham’s letters tell us something of the diseases and illnesses the children contracted and suffered from. Measles was the most dangerous, with outbreaks of dysentery, and ‘The Itch’ (scabies) prevalent. We also learn of the medications and treatments used, and can also see how hard she tried to relieve the children’s distress and comfort them.

Life at the hospital for the children.

The children’s day was regulated, and boys and girls were segregated for eating and working and for play.

The children had lessons using alphabets and spelling books, as well as psalters and prayers to be learned. The children could read and spell, if not write well. They had regular meals and judging by the household  accounts,  the local butcher Mr Killick supplied beef and mutton in considerable quantities. Some 38 stone [241Kg] of Mutton and 125 stone [796 Kg] of Beef were delivered in June 1767.

The Wellstreet farm had 160 acres of land, a hop garden and orchards. Pigs and cows were kept, and bacon was cured and sold locally, mostly to local governors of the foundling hospital. Richard Cole, a local man, was paid for drying Hams from the farm stock. John Saunders also ordered a barrel of rice from the London hospital for ‘puddings for the children’. Spanish Liquorice and cheesecakes were bought for sick children. Fish was rarely bought except Salt fish for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. One order only for fifty Dried Herrings, another for some mackerel and once, in June 1763 a lobster!  A chicken was ‘for a Medicine’ as was brandy and red port wine (rather frowned upon, but used to mix with the medicinal ‘barks’ and ‘tinctures’  and in February 1763 six ‘lemmons’. For Michaelmas: a Goose.

A local baker, James Burnett, must have been delighted to obtain the contract to make the bread for the house when the number of children increased.

The children at  work.

All the children were taught to mend their own clothes.

Boys and girls knitted stockings and mittens.The girls made shifts and shirts, and the aprons and day and night caps that were worn. A tailor made the boys’ suits, and the girls’ coats; clothes were frequently re-lined.

A local chandler supplied leather breaches for the boys, when they were old enough to work in the fields.

(The matron ordered a bell, so that the boys could be called in from the fields for the meal times.)

In the workshops the children spun flax, the flax thread being send up to London for sale.At one time there were as many as 36 ‘double threaded’ spinning wheels in the workshops.

There was a year or so of the boys ‘picking oakam’ which turned out to be a failure: the man who set it up  reneged on the deal and refused to pay for the work done.

What was always important to the governors, was that children learned to ‘acquire the habit of industry’. This encouraged them to be conscientious workers and therefore desirable as obedient Apprentices.

Although there is record in inventories of children’s toys- hoops and balls etc, the children must have brought with them the local knowledge of games played in their foster-homes and villages.

Going to church

The children attended ‘Divine Service’ at St Mary’s Parish Church in Westerham. They had their own benches, possibly for two reasons: One, to keep the children segregated, and the other to put them on show, so that the public could see that they were well cared for and well behaved. These were ‘Parliamentary’ children, and it was tax-payer’s money keeping them; it was important to the governors to demonstrate to local people of influence that the money was being effectively spent.

What happened to the children as they grew up?

When they children reached the age of 11 they were Apprenticed out to Masters.

Westerham succeeded in apprenticing only 18 children directly, of whom three girls went to Mr Arbuthnot’s Calico works in Merton. A boy, Lionel Mawby,  went to a Captain Partridge in Portsmouth- but probably only as a serving boy. John Warde took a boy of small stature for his stables.

When Lionel Mawby ‘came of age’ in 1778 i.e. 21 years old, Captain Partridge wrote to the governors of the London Hospital telling them that he had given Lionel ‘every necessity and a silver watch and two  guineas in his pocket’ He had found Lionel work as a servant. ‘Should he do anything more?’ he asked.

Westerham’s apprenticeship record could have been for a number of factors.It is thought that the proximity to London with its ready demand for apprentices in workshops and manufacturing, and the  lack of any manufacturing in the Westerham area.Perhaps the fact that it was a healthy parish, with a low mortality rate in the town there was  no shortage of young workers for what was mostly a rural economy.

All  other children went back to the London Hospital from where they were apprenticed. When the Westerham Branch closed the children went to London, and many were transferred to Ackworth in Yorkshire.

The girls were overwhelmingly apprenticed as housemaids.

The boys were taken in to a wide range of trades. Each child was given a bible, and a printed code of behaviour when they left the hospital for apprenticeship.


The Westerham Foundling hospital closed quite suddenly. John Saunders received a letter in September 1769 telling him the Lease was to be advertised and to return all the children to the London Hospital. During that October and November the children, 20 or 30 at a time, left by waggon, out through Westerham and on to London.

Mr Saunders stayed on and ran the farm to bring in a small income to offset the rent whilst the Lease ran its course. In October 1773 he wrote to Mr  Collingwood, the London Secretary,  that ‘the last of the livestock had been sold. But, there were some old Spinning Wheels’ which he said,  ‘were of but little value & I believe we shall be troubled to dispose of them.’

Westerham’s association with the London Foundling Hospital was over.

The Foundling Hospital charity continues today under the name of Coram, helping children and young people to develop life skills and achieve a permanent loving home.

Coram 41 Brunswick Square London WC1N 1AZ

Coram is the copyright holder of  the Foundling Hospital documents held at the London Metropolitan Archives 

The Foundling Museum is at 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ

© Alethea R Mitchell
October 2016