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Here at Penn we have a strong interest in the history of reading and book culture. Librarians, faculty, and students have used our collections over the years to study the history of how people read and disseminated texts. I was struck then by the richness of the Orphan’s Asylum records for shedding light on reading practices and book culture in the mid-18th century and thought I would share several examples which might inspire further research.

The committee recommend it to the Quarterly General Court in January next to consider of the Children being taught to write

Along with learning how to spin and sew, the trustees felt strongly that reading and writing should form an essential part of the education of the girls living at the Asylum. The female benefactors of the institution were among some of the most eager to include reading and writing in the curriculum. For example, just as the first girls entered the Asylum, Mrs. Fielding and the Duchess Dowager of Somerset presented a gift of various “useful” books to the institution for the instruction of the new charges.  Unfortunately the exact titles of these books remain unknown but we can guess at their nature from later purchases. When benefactors like Mrs. Fielding thought of what the Asylum’s charges should read they did not turn to ‘dangerous’ novels like those of her brother-in-law Henry. Instead, they provided a standard slate of devotional and didactic books increasingly common in educational settings across the British world [1].

The kinds of religious reading deemed appropriate for the orphans was self-consciously designed for those of lower status. In June 1760, for example, the Asylum received a gift of the following book:

The Knowledge and Practice of Christianity made easy to the meanest Capacities; or an Essay towards an Introduction for the Indians. Courtesy NYPL and Google Books

First published in 1740, this text had reached its ninth edition by 1759 which included a publisher’s note stating that a subsidy could be provided for those buying more than 12 copies for distribution to “poor Families, Children, and Servants.

Beyond providing books for the use of the Asylum’s “objects,” the benefactors of the charity kept a close eye on the ways in which the children were learning to read and write, frequently finding the Asylum’s instructors wanting [2]. In one mysterious 1760 incident involving a writing teacher named Sarah Roberts they even ordered a summary dismissal:

Mr. Metcalfe having acquainted the Board that Mrs. Roberts, who teaches the Children to write, had behaved herself with great Impropriety to The Countess of Coningsby Lady Frances Williams and the Honble Mrs. Boscawen, when they came to visit the House, she was ordered to be forthwith discharged.

The Orphan’s Asylum trustees and benefactors also did a great deal of writing themselves. They wrote notices about the charity to be placed in London newspapers and occasionally published longer summaries of the work of the charity. Indeed one of the first acts of the trustees was to order the publication of a 37 page “Abstract of the proceedings of the guardians of the asylum.” Fielding and the other trustees approached the London printer Richard Francklin (who had previously published Fielding’s own tract on the need for an orphanage) and had 500 copies printed for distribution [3]. For those interested in the history of printing it is likely no surprise that out of those 500 copies, only one is cataloged as surviving today (at the library of the Archbishop of Canterbury less than half a mile from the Asylum). Most of the Asylum’s publishing – forms, slips, tickets, and other ephemera – met this same fate after joining the sea of print then swirling around enlightenment London.


[1]

For more on specific books bought or given to the Asylum see:

August 23, 1758:The trustees provided “3 Dozen of Common Prayer Books for the use of the Children.” The Asylum also took pains to acquire finer editions of many of these texts for example:  “a Folio Common Prayer Book & Bible, and six Common Prayer Books octavo” (roughly a dozen folio editions of the book of common prayer were published in the 1750s alone).
October 4, 1758:”They have also each of them a common Prayer Book, and the New Testament, and other good Books are likewise provided for them.”
November 21, 1759: “…fifty of the Church Catechism made use of at Christ’s Hospital be provided for the use of the Children of this Charity.” Possibly some edition of this text.
January 9, 1760:  “that twenty four bibles be provided for the use of the Children of this Charity”
January 14, 1761:”That the following Books be given to the Children when they are put out apprentice. Vizt. The Old & New Testament; A Common Prayer Book; and the new Whole Duty of Man.”

[2]

Benefactors visiting the Asylum in February 1761 claimed that the then writing master James Sketchley was “not qualified” for the job.

[3]

Richard Francklin actively published out of Covent Garden from the 1730s to the 1760s. The ESTC lists at least 55 imprints under his name.