Child dropping was one way that unmarried women in the Regency dealt with the consequences of an unplanned or socially unacceptable pregnancy. A child would be abandoned; it would either perish outside, or much more likely, be found and mostly looked after in the workhouse. Then the authorities would react; sometimes harshly, but sometimes with a degree of compassion that the Regency is not particularly known for
By our period 1810-1820, attitudes were softening a little to child dropping, as it was increasingly seen as a desperate act. It is clear that the children were, in the vast majority of cases, meant to be found before they died. In September 1811 some labourers working in a brick field at first light found a three month old girl carefully placed in a place where the workers would be bound to find her. A genteel, well dressed woman had been 15 minutes earlier in the fields and the child was thought to be hers. The child was then sent to the St Pancras workhouse to be cared for.
In February 1813, a nine month old child was left in the East India Docks, Blackwall and put next to a large consignment of timber on the quayside. This may seem to be a highly irresponsible place to leave a child; but the truth of the matter is that, just like the Hampstead brick field, it was a place of work were there was a time when it would be deserted, but another time when it was equally certain that it would fill up with people who would find the child. The baby was well “clothed and in a thriving state”; it had not been mistreated until the moment of its abandonment and it was not left there to die. These babies were made to be found; for those who wanted their children dead, the River Thames was a few yards away. Newspaper reports would make indirect judgement on the mother through the clues it had.
Timing and location were crucial for success. These two examples were babies dropped in the early morning outside a busy work place. The other possibility is to place them outside a busy doorway which would be opened regularly. On a busy Saturday night in New Cut, Canterbury in July 1813 unknown women left her four month old child ( “respectable clothed” )on the doorstep of a large house and she was found almost immediately by a maidservant. The gentlemen who owned the house took the child in, looked after it and made plans for its future at his own expense. It is very likely that this was exactly what the poor mother would have wished for, and may well have planned it.
In November 1813, another female infant, a new born, was found, once again on a Saturday evening and once again at the front of a gentlemen’s house in Bath. She was well clothed, wrapped in something that looked like her mother’s petticoat. She was placed in a hat box with a hole pierced in the front to allow the child to breathe. The box was not new; there had been a name written on the outside that had been deliberately erased. The child, like others, ended up in the local workhouse and the Poor Law officers offered 10 guineas for information about the identity of the mother, or the people who planted the baby- their determination of “make a signal example of all such offenders”. However, they also suggested that if the women came forward and had an adequate appalling story to tell, then “they may depend on being treated with every degree of tenderness and delicacy”. The Overseers of the poor finished their newspaper advertisement with news for the mother
NB The Child is alive in the Walcot Poor-House, and is likely to do well
It was a message to the parent. No serious crime had been committed yet. There was a way out.
When did the women become “unnatural mothers”? They would normally have to do more than leave their child on the door step. They would have to be flagrant or ungrateful. In another example from Canterbury in October 1813, a nine month old boy was left at the door of a Mr Hutchinson at the Cattle Market. So far, so good; but it was wrapped in an “old cloak “-that was a judgement- and a reward was put out for the identification of the mother. Any such reward would be cost effective, as otherwise the child would be a burden on the parish. The next day a women called Fitzgerald (“Wife of a sailor”, whose husband may have sailed away somewhere during conception) She came back to claim the child and seemed to be given some money to go away (she would have no right to claim money from the parish, but the child may have been entitled). Instead she took the money, got drunk and broke a window and the child ended up back in the workhouse, this time for good.
It may have been a coincidence, but the use of the expression “unnatural mother” or “inhuman wretch” seems to have been more prevalent in the provincial papers; London papers seem to have been more pragmatic. In November 1816, one child was left outside the Foundling Hospital, a charitable institution which would have been the ideal placement for such a child. He was covered in green baize, with a sign saying “ live lumber “ The “fine boy” was wearing a fine great coat with silk cuffs on his shirt. Somebody had written a poem to the officials of the Foundling Hospital perhaps in order to charm the boy’s way through the Hospitals admission system
It didn’t work. The child was dispatched to the St Pancras workhouse. A reward was offered for the mother; whose poetry and ability to buy nice clothes meant that she was spared the epithet “ unnatural”