I have been tracking newspaper items about foundlings – newborns abandoned by their mother – from the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century. The state: New South Wales although I am sure the other states had similar matters to consider.  Foundlings were newsworthy. This entry is not  atypical but it is rather more fully reported than many such items. It was published in 1879.


A strange discovery was made on Saturday night at Ashfield, by a gentleman living near the Foundling Hospital, who found attached to the gate of his private residence a red carpet-bag containing a healthy-looking   female child, apparently about 2 week old,wrapped in a piece of soft flannel. The other contents of the bag were a glass feeding-bottle and the following letter written in a neat female hand, and addressed to the matron of the Foundling Hospital:—

“Dear Madam,

—Please to be kind to this dear little girl, for it is hard, hard, for me to part with her; but I am a poor girl and have not the strength to work for its support; but if things turn out better than they are at present I will send money for its maintenance. Please call her Hilda McCarthur, and a fond mother’s blessing will be your reward. For the present, I do wish it was in my power to keep the dear little lamb, and the great God above, who is the only witness to my sorrow at this moment, will forgive me for this cruel act; but I hope I may yet, perhaps, in after years, show her a mother’s care, for a mother’s love she has already. And now I once more beseech you to call her the name mentioned above, and to be kind to her, for she is very good. And I remain, my dear Madam,

— A mother in sad, sad trouble.” (The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) Monday 7 July 1879 p 5).

One line of interpretation might be to consider the mother’s background – single, holding a secret, torn between her love for her baby and social expectations of her; hoping, vainly, most likely, that she might find a way to support her infant. Perhaps she was an educated lass, of the middle classes where education was more than basic reading and writing. She wanted a particular name for her child: what does that mean? In a society with so very few rights for single mothers, where illegitimacy was a mark of doom; a sign of inherited degeneracy, this mother was giving as much as she could to her child.

We can only imagine what might have happened next. Little Hilda would have been taken in and cared for, perhaps in a large nursery. Perhaps she was boarded out, Maybe her mother was able to find a position – as a servant or governess. It is clear though that she was one of many that the government of the day was turning its mind to – at the urging of a group of leading women and, indeed, if this report is indicative, sympathetic newspaper editors.

In 1881 New South Wales was one of the first of the Australian colonies to pass legislation making provision for state children to be boarded out – fostered – with families. The  government, led by the venerable and colourful Henry Parkes, was influenced by a group of women – including Lady Mary Windeyer  whose concern for the well being of orphans and foundlings was awakened by British reformer Florence Davenport Hill through her friendship with South Australian woman reformer, Caroline Clark. Hill had written of children living in workhouse and barrack style conditions, their uniformity, the subsequent loss of individuality and the ‘idiocy’ resulting from lack of parental care and bonding. Caroline Clark whose advocacy of boarding out also determined the direction of South Australian government policy. In her little book published in 1907: ‘State Children in Australia’  South Australian  author, reformer and also a  friend of Caroline Clarke, Catherine Helen Spence wrote of the value of boarding out for these abandoned children. Not only  was their vitality apparent but the bonds formed with their foster families continued beyond these formal arrangements. Far better, she affirmed, for the stability of the state.

Hill, Clark and Spence all argued for the contribution of environmental factors as these interacted with inherited traits. They challenged popular notions of abandoned and illegitimate children being of inferior genetic stock – a position affirmed by American sociologist Richard Dugdale in his 1877 study of five generations of a New York family – which he called the Jukes family. Seeking to  understand the origins and intergenerational transmission of ‘crime and dissipation’ Dugdale, I suggest, affirmed the importance of  environmental factors in early infant development… traces of thought taken up by  Freud  and later theorists of the infant mind: D W Winnicott and John Bowlby.