The Foundling Hospital22 minute read

The Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, London was a charitable home for abandoned children founded by Thomas Coram in 1739. The hospital was in operation until 1926 when it was relocated and the original building demolished. Today, select memories and structures of the hospital are preserved in the Foundling Museum, located in an adjacent building. Drawing on the themes of control and resistance, and using Foucault’s heterotopia as a backdrop, this paper will engage critically with the concept of the palimpsest to explore the ways in which the Hospital is a site inscribed with historical power relations, and how these power relations are recollected, reproduced and contested through the curation of the museum today.

To begin with, the concepts of palimpsest and heterotopia will be briefly discussed and the Foundling Hospital situated within it. Secondly, the research methodology will be explained. Thirdly, historical power relations are explored, with particular attention paid to how the less powerful groups of mothers and foundlings conform to and resist the identities inscribed upon them by the dominant narrative imposed by the hospital authorities. Fourthly, analysis of the curation of the museum uncovers the ways in which the power relations of the past are not only deliberately brought up in its exhibitions, they are also subverted and paralleled through the relationship between museum authorities and the source communities. Finally, this paper concludes that in its existence as two forms of heterotopia, historical power relations often involved an overwhelming dominance of one party, and present attempts by museum authorities to even out the inequalities is a direct consequence of past power relations.

Conceptual background

“Power organizes experience and produces subjects and objects, in short, power generates reality.” (Dekker and Lechner, 1999: 45)

The palimpsest, as described by Dillon (2005), is a metaphor for the intertwining of the past and present through the layering of texts, as previous writing cannot be perfectly erased and becomes visible underneath or mixed in with newer writing. This layering does not occur as strata, instead becoming interwoven with other texts, disturbing linear notions of time and space (Dillon, 2005). The Foundling Hospital can be interpreted as a palimpsest, for throughout its history it has been the site of interactions between different groups of people. According to Cosgrove and Jackson (1987), landscapes are socially constructed, meaning that both social relations and power politics become embedded into landscapes, and as the groups of people change over time, new relationships are inscribed. Furthermore, the relative power each group has determines to what extent they can impose a dominant structure. Throughout its long history, the hospital has also undergone regime changes, such as the changing requirements for admission during the General Reception versus the nineteenth century (Foundling Museum, 2014), that further shape social relations and the distribution of power. Furthermore, the change in function of the hospital from child care institution to museum altered the way it engaged with past texts in the palimpsest, since the purpose of a heritage museum is to embody certain memories that have disappeared from society, which involves bringing out the recollection of an older inscription (Farahani, Setayesh and Shokrollahi, 2015). Studying palimpsests enables one to uncover traces of past societies, including the past power relations, and examine how they influence social relations in the present.

The notion of heterotopia was conceived by Foucault (1967) who theorised it as a real but different space, separate from but still connected to society, on which it was dependent for meaning. The Foundling Hospital and Museum both fit into different types of heterotopia. The hospital, as a total institution of care and control (Schliehe, 2016) was a heterotopia of crisis: a privileged, sacred or forbidden place where individuals who are in a state of crisis with respect to the rest of society go, and perform activities that are not allowed to occur in society, that must happen “elsewhere” or “nowhere” (Foucault, 1967: 333). Single mothers and illegitimate children fell into this category of crisis, since they did not conform to any standard allowed to them. Heterotopias of crisis allowed their reconstitution into subjects appropriate for and accepted by society, through control and discipline of the subject’s actions to regulate transgressive behaviour (Foucault, 1967). The museum, meanwhile, as Foucault (1967) writes, is a heterotopia of time, accumulating objects from all times in one place; that place both exists in time, as part of the real world, and out of time, since they are built to withstand wear. Implicit in heterotopia is the idea of control, for the dominant power structures of heterotopic spaces need to be established and then maintained. Therefore the palimpsest could be split into two eras of different heterotopias, each with its own power relations shaping the texts produced.


“Research is always bound up in networks of power and knowledge and is, therefore, inherently political” (Flowerdew and Martin, 2005: 177). Considering that this project involves the investigation into power relations in the past and present, it is crucial in the project methodology that the imbalance of power embedded into various techniques of data collection are fully understood and not inadvertently reinforced. Therefore, a combination of different techniques that complemented each other and allowed for cross-analysis was used.

Archival research formed the basis for primary research into historical power relations. Held by the London Metropolitan Archives, the hospital’s records are extensive, with documents ranging from its initial charter to sermons given in its chapel. For this essay I focused on the admission petitions. Ogborn (2003) warns that archives only provide a partial record, since they present an official position that privileges the voices of some groups while excluding others, making it difficult, if not impossible, to reveal subversive identities and actions of resistance through a simple reading of the material. Although it is true that the Foundling Hospital archives do present a perspective heavily skewed in favour of the hospital authorities who authored most of the records, the numerous stakeholders who had input in the admissions process means the archive manifests a complex set of relationships between multiple groups (Taylor, 2001), making it useful in critically analysing the gender- and class-based power relations expressed and contested in this aspect of the hospital.

Site visits to the Foundling Museum were carried out both before and after archival research to gather both historical data as well as observations on processes of control and resistance within the institution of the museum. To accomplish the former I approached the exhibitions as a primary data source; as for the latter I used critical discourse analysis to uncover the exhibition narrative, enabling its contextualisation in the wider social context (Grek, 2005). Oral histories of the foundlings were presented in an exhibit and online; they too were approached as both historical evidence and as a part of the museum’s narrative. The oral histories provided a good contrast to the archives, as records written by foundlings were almost impossible to find.

The Hospital: Power and control in the past

The Fallen Woman

A mother’s application for admission of her child consisted of three parts: the petition letter, filled in by the mother, an interview with the hospital-assigned inquirer, and personal references. The petitioning process relied on the underlying narrative of the ‘Fallen Woman’ (Nead, 2016) to enable the Governors to exert control over the crisis heterotopia of the hospital, inscribing the landscape with a set of values that cast mothers into specific roles.

Fig 1: Interview questions
Fig 1: Interview questions

As previously introduced, crisis heterotopias are space of otherness, where individuals who are in a state that does not belong in society exist. Though constantly contested (Foucault, 1978), a dominant Victorian sexual attitude towards women was the virgin/whore dichotomy (Trudgill, 1976). But unlike general society where a woman could only be either a Madonna or a Magdalen (Trudgill, 1976), in the hospital a woman could simultaneously exist as both and neither – the fallen woman. While there are multiple forms a fallen woman can take (Nead, 2016), the only one accepted by the hospital authorities was the woman who previously lived in respectability, is currently in a state of immorality due to her illegitimate childbirth, but could be brought back to respectability upon relief of her child. The hospital, as heterotopia, was a place the woman’s return to respectability could occur, since, like her fall into immorality, it was supposed to happen “nowhere”. Thus the acceptance of her child into the hospital was a way of regulating transgressive behavior through control and discipline of the subject’s actions (Foucault, 1978), giving the fallen woman a chance to be reconstituted into a respectable subject.

The hospital was an institution of power that established and disseminated a standard of female sexuality that differentiated the deserving poor from the undeserving poor (Nead, 2016). The Board of Governors, consisting almost entirely of elite white men, had the ‘power to generalise’ (Mitchell, 2000: 70) and were the key force in determining what had value within the boundaries of the admissions process. Though economic need was always a key determinant, from the late eighteenth century onwards petitions increasingly involved a judgement of the mother’s character – whether she previously possessed a moral character, and would be likely to return to respectability after being relieved of their offspring (Nead, 2016; Sheetz-Nguyen, 2012). Indeed, the hospital explicitly stated its aim was “restoration of the mother to work and a life of virtue” (Foundling Museum, 2014: 22), and sought out deserving candidates for its work through a distinctly voyeuristic investigation into the petitioners’ sexual history.

But first, the underlying assumptions of the myth of the fallen woman will be examined. One of the questions asked during the inquirer’s examination was “What led to your seduction?” (Foundling Hospital, 1832-1835). The distinct use of passive voice systematically denies the women potential for agency in her sexual relations, instead framing it as an act done to them by men. Proving oneself as deserving of the hospital’s services meant accepting, whether consciously or not, this representation of themselves as helpless victims of their seducers (Evans, 2005), and in return embodying their replies to the inquirer:

“…an unfortunate young woman unhappily seduced by a young man, under the spacious Promise of Marriage…” – petition of Sarah Potter (Foundling Hospital, 1773) Evidence of “artful and long-continued” courtship with steps taken towards marriage was a characteristic the Governors favoured (Foundling Museum, 2014: 23), and was in line with wider attitudes towards sex that expected not chastity but only legitimate childbirth from unmarried couples (Griffin, 2013). Since sexual activity within courtship did not undermine the woman’s claim to good character (Sheetz-Nguyen, 2012), conforming to the image of the fallen woman was thus a regulation of potentially transgressive behavior.

Although the deep detail women were forced to go into during their interviews was uncomfortable and mostly disempowering, it opened up the opportunity for “micro-techniques” that allowed enterprising women to commit active resistance in a situation where they would otherwise be rendered powerless (Nead, 2016: 184). It was well-known that the Governors considered domestic service as the pinnacle of respectable employment for working-class women (Foundling Museum, 2014; Sheetz-Nguyen, 2012). Petitioners who did not meet this ideal instead attempted to perform it through deceit, despite what Evans (2005) asserts is a high chance of discovery upon further investigation. For example, petitioner A.B. claimed a long courtship and previous employment in service in her application, though it was later revealed that those were “Statements altogether false” and the petition was rejected (Foundling Hospital, 1832-1835). Although this technique relies on the petitioner conforming to the fallen woman narrative, it is a performance rather than an internalisation. Most importantly, it is a deliberate act of self-representation that undermines the power imbalance of the interview. If the deception was successful, Nead (2016) argues that the hospital would have thus fallen victim to its own myth. Therefore, the performance of conformity is a form of resistance that involved the reclaiming an imposed identity to attain some power in the dominant structure.

Docile Bodies

To Foucault, the body was an object and a target of power, and disciplinary methods were the main mode through which the foundling’s bodies were subject to a relation of docility-utility, resulting in the “meticulous control of the operations of the body” (Foucault, 1995). This involved the organisation of space, time and everyday activities, and surveillance (Foucault, 1995). Within the hospital, bodily control was part of the process of reconstitution of inherently immoral bastard children, into respectable, useful working-class citizens.

Fig 2: Exhibit of bed and dormitory
Fig 2: Exhibit of bed and dormitory

A major way in which the dominant power structure manifested itself was through the austerity and regiment of hospital life, as the lack of privacy and personality in the dormitories (Fig 1) exemplifies. While the physical standard of living was fine, even good, emotional welfare was scant. This reveals the perspectives towards institutional child care: it was believed by middle- class authorities that an immoral environment, like being born out of wedlock, led the innocent child to corruption, thus harsh discipline was required to achieve moral rehabilitation (Ferguson, 2007: 123). Control over the body extended further to preparation of the foundlings for their future lives as working adults through a seven-year apprenticeship in a field of work determined by the hospital authorities. It was a common belief that work would cure orphaned children of their social ills (Disney, 2015). True to the hospital’s narrative of respectability, even up to the mid-twentieth century, girls were sent into domestic service, while boys mostly went into the military or a trade (Foundling Museum, 2014). These were deemed appropriate occupations for the rescued foundlings, who as products of public benevolence, owed their labour to the nation (Taylor, 2001). Overall, the hospital’s daily operations functioned within a system that gave care providers unquestioned and unquestionable moral authority (Ferguson, 2007) enabling effective surveillance and moral management of its charges.

The power structures in this disciplinary institution were further reinforced through one particular man. John Brownlow was himself a foundling, then later attained positions as a clerk, before finally serving as Secretary between 1849 and 1872 (Foundling Museum, 2014). As Secretary, he was very much an embodiment of Foucault’s self-policing subject, who had internalised the dominant gaze and was “caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers” (Foucault 1995: 201). Brownlow was well-loved, often acting as the mediator between mothers and Governors if a mother who wished to reconnect with her child (Taylor, 2001). He championed education, believing it key to developing character, and also proposed for less regimentality (Foundling Hospital, 1827). It is clear he believed in the hospital’s goals of giving foundlings a life outside of poverty. Yet he also used his position of privilege to reinforce the duty of foundlings to docility and good conduct. His response to an incident of insubordination was that “too much indulgence…has made them forget their true position in society” (Taylor, 2001), and he exhorted his charges upon their graduation to be grateful to their “Earthly benefactors” for the care they were given (Foundling Hospital, 1827). In his unique position, Brownlow’s way of balancing his deference to the Governors and his experience as a product of the hospital made him into the benevolent but ultimately compliant subject through which the dominant power structure is transmitted and reproduced (Foucault, 1995).

Not all foundlings, however, internalised the perfect ‘blank child’ (Taylor, 2001) that Brownlow was. As with the case of mothers in their petitions, the performance of conformity to the underlying narrative appeared the same to the dominating gaze as genuine conformity (Simon, 2005). Structured daily routines had to be obeyed and outright insubordination was met harshly, but the foundlings had significant leeway for small acts of resistance. Furthermore, their relationships with their peers and the environment allowed them to form their own identities outside of what was imposed on them. For example, the girls often saved treats from meals during the week for ‘midnight feasts’, and largely managed to avoid detection (Foundling Voices Collection, 2011). Through this, the girls subverted the system that disallowed socialising at mealtimes, and carved out a space of their own rules. Even if it did not have a lasting impact on the dominant power structure, it was a disruption of the processes of bodily control, giving the girls back their agency. Thus, as much as heterotopic spaces model perfect regulation, it must be noted that landscapes are socially constructed (Cosgrove and Jackson, 1987) and so power within is always contested.

The Museum: Power and control over the past

According to Foucault (1967), museums can be considered heterotopias of time, because they accumulate ad infinitum, with an abstract, implicit aim of creating a universal archive to enclose all times in a place that is itself outside time. As a space of representation (Al-Ragam, 2013), museums can both mirror and distort reality (Brady, 2013), which makes it crucial to understand how the past is represented and its implications on power relations.

The Foundling Museum does indeed try to acknowledge the power politics of the past, and show through its exhibits the historical agency of the foundlings that were previously obscured. Allen and Hamby (2011) argue that museums are not just contested sites where knowledge is negotiated, they can also be field sites where the source community’s authority is recognised and they are able to explore their own history. This involves a concerted shift away from the museum’s traditional authoritative standing (Grek, 2005) towards more participatory approaches. The museum did this through the Foundling Voices Collection, its oral history project featuring the life stories of foundlings who had been with the hospital in the early twentieth century.

Fig 3: Foundling Voices video
Fig 3: Foundling Voices video

The use of oral histories is a deliberate move to challenge the historical power imbalance between the hospital authorities and the foundlings, and the more modern power imbalance between experts and source communities. The shift in focus from official records to the experiences of the source community itself is supported by Brady (2013), who encouraged wariness of ‘expert’ narratives created without input from source communities. Furthermore, it must be considered in the context of the hospital’s harsh disciplinary lifestyle, where, as argued in previous paragraphs, the pressure to conform meant there was little room for truthful expression of their thoughts and desires. This emergence of previously suppressed voices through this exhibit recalls Dillon’s (2005) postcolonial approach to the palimpsest, that palimpsests consist of interlocking, competing narratives, and that shifts in the balance of power are possible in future reinscriptions. This collection acknowledges the previous powerlessness of the source community, and performs a reinscription of the palimpsest to uncover and empower these voices (Dillon, 2005). This, however, does not necessitate a silencing of other inscriptions, as the Foundling Voices complement the other exhibits, giving visitors a better understanding of the hospital’s history overall.

In a separate exhibition, the museum curators once again showed awareness of historical power inequalities and how they were treated in the present. The Fallen Woman, curated by Lynda Nead, was a 2015 special exhibition meant to bring the stories of the petitioners to life metaphorically give them back their voices (Nead, 2016). Selected petitions were displayed alongside artworks and a sound installation. Unfortunately, unlike the Foundling Voices Collection, this exhibition could not have involved a true shift in the distribution of power, for the source community was no longer alive and thus the museum could not become a field site where new knowledge and agency was produced (Allen and Hamby, 2011). Moreover, the act of curating the displays led to an inadvertent reproduction of a past exertion power over a relatively powerless group:

“There was an uncomfortable and uncanny moment…when we realised that in choosing the archive objects the include in the exhibition we were repeating this process of selection and rejection.” (Nead, 2016: 183).
Nevertheless, the exhibition was a good example of why “a good deal of cultural studies is centered on questions of representation” (Barker, 2008, in Al-Ragam, 2014: 664). Nead acknowledgement of the problems of representation of the women within the source material recognises that the museum is a contested site (Allen and Hamby, 2011), and that there may not be a single truth to be revealed from the past, as the palimpsest is made up of multiple threads that are all interlinked (Dillon, 2003). Museums should engage critically with their material (Brady, 2013) – and not limit itself to merely collecting all information as the heterotopia of time implies.


This essay has explored the power relations of the past inscribed onto the palimpsest of the Foundling Hospital and how these are echoed or challenged in the power relations of today. Within the crisis heterotopia and total institution of the hospital, the Governors had such an unquestioned moral authority that they were able to impose a set of values on both the mothers and foundlings, controlling their bodies and actions to “remake” them into socially-acceptable subjects – the respectable woman and the docile working-class citizen. Still, the relatively powerless subjects were able to resist in subtle ways. Some petitioners attempted deceit through a performance of conformity to the fallen woman myth, while foundlings made a space for themselves within the system. It was clear that power circulated, never localized in one place for long (Foucault and Gordon, 1980).

In the heterotopia of time, the museum, curators challenged the traditional dominant power structure to give foundlings agency in telling their stories and show an alternative perspective on the petitioners, when these groups were denied a voice in the past. This appears to be a direct outcome of the highly unequal historical relations. Each act of agency, regardless how small, acts as a new inscription on the palimpsest, leaving traces of the past in the landscape of the Foundling Hospital that shape future inscriptions. As Dillon (2003) writes, even as the palimpsest reifies our understanding of current ideas, those ideas enable another reinscription of the palimpsest.

It must be noted that the findings of this project are by no means exhaustive. I present them as possibilities rather than answers, for the Foundling Hospital is a wealth of information and it was not possible to fully investigate into everyday activities at the hospital, or a greater range of the museum’s collections. Possibilities for further research in this area include the role of art and music, which was an important aspect of hospital life in the past and constitutes a large section of the museum today.


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Nead, L. (2016) ‘Fallen Women and Foundlings: Rethinking Victorian Sexuality’, History Workshop Journal, 82(1): 177-187.

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Sheetz-Nguyen, J.A. (2012) Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital. London: Continuum.

Simon, B. (2005) ‘The Return of Panopticism: Supervision, Subjection and the New Surveillance’, Surveillance & Society, 3(1): 1-20.

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Archive references

The Foundling Hospital (1863) A/FH/A/08/001/002/072 Petitions: Admitted (Nos 20975- 21015) In order of children’s numbers 1 bundle 1863. Available via: London Metropolitan Archives. Foundling Hospital. London.

The Foundling Hospital (1773) A/FH/A/08/001/001/004 Admitted to ballot, rejected Includes lists of petitioners admitted to ballot at back of volume 1 volume 1773. Available via: London Metropolitan Archives. Foundling Hospital. London.

The Foundling Hospital (1832-1835) A/FH/M/01/008/327-349 Female petitioners: case notes and list of questions to be asked Pages 327-349 in JB35 1 document 1832-1835. Available via: London Metropolitan Archives. Foundling Hospital. London.

The Foundling Hospital (1832-1835) A/FH/M/01/067 Management of the child, MS papers by John Brownlow: Observations on the education and general treatment of the children at the Foundling Hospital: Employment, education and apprenticing of children JB7 1 volume 1827. Available via: London Metropolitan Archives. Foundling Hospital. London.

Museum exhibit references

The Foundling Museum (2015) The Fallen Woman. [online] (accessed 27 Apr 2017)

The Foundling Museum (2011) Foundling Voices Collection. [online] (accessed 27 Apr 2017)

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