May 2018: The Middle Temple Foundlings

For a period from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth century, the Inns of Court were among the most popular places in London for abandoning children who, for whatever reason, could not be cared for or were simply unwanted. Over the years, hundreds of infants were left around the Middle Temple. As an extra-parochial area (falling beyond the boundaries of any parish, and therefore excluded from the usual poor relief), the responsibility to take care of these children fell squarely (and literally) on the Inn's doorstep.

While not keen on this practice, and taking various steps to prevent it, the Inn took its responsibilities for these children seriously, providing for their care and often setting them up well for adult life. This month, we look at the archival records which tell the story of the Temple foundlings - who they were, where they came from and how the Inn provided for them.

A 'Register of Exposed Children' has survived in the archive, which records details of all those children left in the Middle Temple between 1701 and 1850. They were usually named by the Inn, and always given the surname 'Temple'. The date and location of their abandonment was recorded, as well as the date of their baptism in the Temple Church, and also details of the Inn's further provision for their welfare and future. Sadly, not many of these infants survived long enough to have much of a future - one of the more poignant entries is for a William Temple, found in March 1801: 'The child appeared when found to be almost starved to which its Death was attributed'. Some stories have a happy twist, however - one infant's entry from 1783 records that it was 'Claimed by the Mother immediately after it had been sent to the Nurse'.

Excerpt from the Register of Exposed Children, 1701-1850 (MT.19/CHI)

Why were the foundlings abandoned? There must have been myriad reasons, but the poverty and desperation rife in eighteenth and nineteenth century London, coupled with a lack of significant support or welfare provision must have been prime amongst these, as one record indicates. A petition, dated 17 December 1718 and addressed to the Inn, was found with a child exposed in Essex Court, signed by 'the unfortunate father of this more unfortunate infant'. This petition states that the father is 'well educated in the law but thro' a series of misfortunes is rendered incapable to maintain this infant, and so obliged to expose him after this indecent manner (to your petitioner's unspeakable griefe and concern).'

Petition of the father of an infant exposed in Essex Court, 17 December 1718 (MT.18/FOU/2)

The Inn did attempt to prevent this burdensome practice. Rewards were offered for information concerning certain children - a poster appeared in March 1801, offering a £20 reward for information regarding a boy 'supposed to be about Eighteen Months old, having a Burn or Scald on the Left Leg, dressed in a White Dimity Cloak', found in Essex Court. Such assistance was evidently valued - in 1777, Parliament ordered that a guinea be paid to one Mrs Gabrill 'as an acknowledgement for her care & trouble in voluntarily bringing to light the parents of a child that was deserted in the passage between the top of Brick Court and Essex Court'.