Ladies of Quality and Distinction

Posted by on January 5, 2019 in Blog, Exhibition, Health, History, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

Nurse at summer camp for Foundling Hospital children/damesnet

Quite. I don’t see how I could sum it up any better; this is exactly what damesnet is all about.  We celebrate ladies of quality and distinction. The particular example featured in this blog is a wonderful exhibition currently on at the equally marvellous Foundling Museum in London.

I have to confess that until a mere 2 months ago I had never visited this institution; The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and, intriguingly, the first public art gallery.

The hospital was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. Coram had campaigned for 17 years until he was issued with a Royal Charter from King George II to set up the charity. The first babies were admitted in 1741, and around 25,000 children were cared for and educated up until 1954, when the last residential pupil was placed in foster care.

Now a museum, the exhibits chart the extraordinary story of the Foundling Hospital, from its origins in the 18th century to life at the institution in the 20th century.  

Ladies of Quality and Distinction is a special exhibition at the Museum that considers the remarkable contribution that women have made to British society, culture and philanthropy.  It is divided into parts; upstairs in the Picture Gallery there are portraits of the 21 ladies who signed Thomas Coram’s first petition, presented to King George II in 1735, calling for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital.  The support of these women was crucial in overcoming moral concerns about the project; these were the children of ‘fallen women’, and the prevailing attitude in society was not one that cared about such progeny.

Frances Flint with Foundling Hospital children she fostered/damesnet

Reflecting the difference in status, the exhibits in the gallery downstairs tell the stories of the women who supported the day-to-day running of the institution. They were matrons, cooks, laundresses and scullery maids.  Even more unseen was the small army of wet nurses who lived outside the hospital and who fostered the children in their infancy, returning them to the Hospital when they were around five years old.

Many of these nurses were mothers who supplemented the family income by taking an extra child into the family. Nursing the foundlings was not without risk; the transmission of diseases such as scabies, smallpox and other conditions from the child could have a serious impact on the nurse and her family. Wet nurse Elizabeth Newman was treated and received compensation from the Governors after contracting a ‘venereal disease’, probably syphilis, from the child she was breastfeeding.  Equally critical to the functioning of the institution was the role of inspector; women and men supervised the wet nurses to ensure standards were maintained in their homes. The female inspectors were often the wives or relatives of Governors.

The portraits in the upper gallery are very fine indeed, but for me the real story lies in the depictions of the lives of those downstairs. The role of Matron was the most important one in this stratum of the Foundling Hospital society; she managed all the female staff and the girls’ wing. Other senior posts included the Chief Infirmary Nurse, the Schoolmistress and the Cook.

Cook carving/damesnet

I mentioned that this was the first public art gallery; William Hogarth and George Frideric Handel were both key to helping Coram realise his vision; Hogarth encouraged leading artists of the day to donate works, which were the foundations of the new gallery, and Handel conducted annual concerts of his Messiah in the Hospital’s chapel.

The exhibition runs until January 20th; we hope you can catch it by then, but if not the permanent exhibition is a delight in itself, in particular the oral history recordings by former pupils.


  1. We visited in 2010 to see the ‘Threads of Feeling’ exhibition. When a child was given up the mother would offer a small piece of textile or a token to identify the infant. These were on display with messages from the mother to the child. So very, very sad. Less than 1% were reunited.

    The exhibition was beautiful. We’ve never forgotten it. Thanks for the timely reminder Barbara that we should visit again soon!

    • I read about that exhibition but never got there; the Foundling Museum is indeed a place well worth keeping in touch with.
      Dame B

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