to preserve poor friendless girls from Ruin and to render them useful Members of the Community

John Fielding and the other charity benefactors leased an inn for use as the physical location of the Asylum for Orphan Girls in May 1758 but they did not admit any actual girls into the Asylum until July. In the meantime, they hired staff, advertised the charity, and decided who exactly to admit into their care. Though there was apparently some disagreement on the ages of those girls to be admitted (as their minutes record) they agreed on a broad definition of who they intended to serve:

That the Objects to be admitted into the Asylum be Orphans and other deserted Girls of the Poor within the Bills of Mortality[1] from the age of ten to fourteen eight to twelve years.

What can we say then about these girls, “Objects” in the minds of their benefactors, and what brought them to the Asylum?

Surprisingly, the records of the Asylum reveal that of the 54 girls admitted between 1758 and 1761, only 8 were orphans in the truest sense (i.e. both parents no longer living). The rest were either brought to the Asylum by a mother or a father or had a living parent elsewhere. The Asylum offered free room and board as well as training towards becoming a domestic servant in an elite household and as such must have seemed an attractive opportunity for those on the lower rungs of London society.[2]

There was clearly a demand for places at the Asylum as the trustees turned away girls at nearly every open day. In February 1759, for instance, 17 of the 27 who petitioned for admission were refused. The trustees recorded their observations on each child in their minutes and displayed a clear preference for those who appealed to desertion by a husband, illness, or a surfeit of other children to care for. Others the trustees refused with the simple note “Parents very well able to maintain them.” These brief justifications for taking or refusing a prospective charge are fascinating and can be found throughout the records as well as collected in the chart below.

Despite the fact that most of the girls in this early period did indeed have living parents, the Asylum treated them as orphans, greatly restricting communication with parents – seeking to “save” girls from the supposed contamination of their upbringing. Unsurprisingly then, some girls sought to visit their families just outside the Asylum’s walls as in August 1759:

The Matron reported that Sarah Carpenter, Sarah Gelder and Mary Morris got out at the Window and went home to their Parents, but returned in a few Hours.

Just days after this breakout, nine-year-old Mary Bowes left the Asylum out the front door. In this instance and in some others parents appeared to take their children home, citing a change in financial circumstance or giving no other reason at all.

15 August 1759 Minutes (p.99)

The Mother of Mary Bowes having petitioned to take away her Daughter, the same was consented to.

The trustees, unhappy at this subversion of their intentions, had decreed that the parents of all future girls to be admitted would have to pay a bond to secure the cost of clothes provided by the Asylum. The trustees also decided to turn away the youngest girls who were most connected with their parents by limiting admissions in 1759 to only those between 10 and 13. Finally, in 1760 the Asylum board made the decision to restrict new admissions to only those without both mother and father and further created a system wherein all girls presented to the charity would have to be sponsored by one of the Asylum’s benefactors, thereby solidifying patronage ties between girls, their families, and wealthy local elites.

For those interested in digging into the lives of the early Asylum “orphans” I have provided a complete list of the named applicants to the Asylum below:

[1] The “Bills of Mortality” were a result of early attempts at reporting deaths from epidemic illnesses like the plague in London but in this usage refers to the geographical reporting area covered by these bills. These boundaries within greater London are not intuitive to the modern reader – see a list of parishes here as well as a map of the area here.

[2]The manuscript records now at Penn record a few telling details about the parents of some of the girls. For example, we know that eight-year-old Mary Garvie’s mother was a “Chare Woman,” a description given to those who worked occasionally in household service for pay. Likewise, some 12 of the 54 girls admitted during this period had a father serving as a soldier or sailor in Britain’s global wars of the 1750s (e.g. nine-year-old Sarah Monies’ father,  “a soldier gone to Senegal.”) – one of the less reputable professions in the eyes of the moral elite.