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Document Type

Article

Abstract

Unmarried working women who got pregnant in Victorian London and were abandoned by the fathers were in a sticky situation. If a woman kept the baby, she would unlikely be able to provide for it, especially under the ‘Bastardly Act’ of the 1834 Poor Law, which deemed all illegitimate children under the sole responsibility of the mother. If she concealed her pregnancy and abandoned the child, or risked her life by having an illegal abortion, she would at best be held liable for infanticide, at worst, dead. One institutional option available to these vulnerable mothers was the London Foundling Hospital (orphanage). The LFH aspired to be respectable, and as the demand for illegitimate child care exceeded the supply, the directors – all men – could select whose babies they chose to shelter and whose they rejected. Their criterion was “respectability”: whether the mothers had been respectable before their “fall” and would become so again if ‘relieved’ of their offspring. Application for admission involved the application itself, an examination of the mother recorded in a transcript, and personal references. In an assessment of these documents, coupled with extensive secondary research, this paper emphasizes the agency of the petitioners that other historians have downplayed by showing how these mothers crafted their stories to fit the ascribed rules and conventions of the Victorian charity. The analysis aims to strike a balance between the power of the institution and the mothers’ agency among limited options that complicate the widely held assumptions about Victorian sexuality and motherhood.