The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird's-eye view of the courtyard
Coloured engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753
Image from Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons
In the mid 1700s a register was kept of local nursing mothers who were prepared to feed and nourish unwanted babies from the Foundling Hospital in London. In North Mymms, South Mimms, London Colney, St Albans, and Hatfield, there were a total of 80 women named. Seven lived in North Mymms and six in South Mimms, with five in Colney Heath.
We have the document, which is from the Peter Miller Collection and which lists all the women by name, embedded later in this piece.
"Women took in babies for money in Victorian Britain, and nursed them themselves or fed them with whatever was cheapest. This was known as baby-farming; poor care sometimes resulted in high infant death rates. The wetnurse at this period was most likely a single woman who previously had given birth to an illegitimate child.
"There were two types of wet nurses in Victorian England. There were those on poor relief, who struggled to provide sufficiently for themselves or their charges, and there were professional wet nurses who were well paid and respected."
According to the National Archives site, the Foundling Hospital was started by Thomas Coram, a philanthropist who was appalled to see children and babies dying on London’s streets.
"The word 'hospital' implied the hospitality shown to children in their care, rather than a place for the sick. Mothers brought their babies to the Hospital, where they would be given a new name. However, mothers left a token with the hospital, such as a scrap of fabric or a coin, so that the child could be identified if the mother enquired about or wanted to claim the child.
"The first children were admitted in 1741. In 1745 their purpose built children's home was opened in Bloomsbury, London, which at that time was surrounded by fields. By the early 19th century, the hospital mainly wanted to help illegitimate children: 'the design of the founder… being twofold - to hide the shame of the mother, as well as to preserve the life of the child'. Children had to be under 12 months of age, and were admitted after the mother had been interviewed and deemed to fit the criteria set out by the hospital. Once they had been accepted, children were registered, and were sent to live with a 'nurse' or foster family in the country. When they reached four or five years of age, children were sent to live at the Foundling Hospital in London, where they received schooling until they were 15 years old, and then were apprenticed, usually to work in domestic or military service."
Local historian and archivist, Peter Miller, has shared a document with this site (embedded below) that lists the local wet nurses in the middle of the 18th century.
PDF of page from the book ... From the Peter Miller Collection
The document above tells the story of baby number 6010 who had been left at the Foundling Hospital illegally, and how his mother, Betty Harding of St Albans, fought to get him back.
"Her illegitimate son, named John Andrews, was delivered illegally into the Foundling Hospital on 18 October 1757 (the father appears to have been John Andrews). Betty Harding petitioned for the return of her son on 9 November 1757 . She named two sureties and deposited £5 5s 0d to cover the charges incurred by the hospital. The baby was returned from Epping. He had been numbered 6010 and baptised with a new name - Edward Vincent."
In her medical research essay written in 1988 and embedded below, Valerie Fildes looks into 'The English wet-nurse and her role in infant care 1538-1800'. She points out that of the 62 Hertfordshire parishes, 36 (58%) accepted nurse-children, principally from London, and between 1544 and 1800 they buried 1,912 nurse-children. Between 1614 and 1752, North Mimms buried 65.
A series of graphics in the embedded document below show how North Mimms was not listed as a parish offering wet-nursing between 1550 and 1599 (figure 2a), whereas between 1700 and 1749, North Mimms is marked as one of the Hertfordshire parishes "burying large numbers of nurse-children" (figure 2d).
According to Wikipedia, wet nursing in England decreased in popularity during the mid-19th century due to the writings of medical journalists concerning the undocumented health risks.