Ladies of Quality & Distinction

The Foundling Museum

Discover how women played a vital role in the establishment and running of London's Foundling Hospital, from the eighteenth to the twentieth century

In autumn 2018, the Foundling Museum presents Ladies of Quality & Distinction (21 September 2018 – 20 January 2019), a major exhibition resetting the focus of the Foundling Hospital’s story by highlighting the contributions of women across all aspects of this important London institution. Despite its male face, women permeate every aspect of the Hospital story; as mothers, supporters, wet nurses, staff, inspectors, apprentice masters, artists, musicians, craftsmen and foundlings. Yet for the past 300 years, history has placed these women as a footnote in the story, preferring instead to focus on the male governors and the male artists who portrayed them. The Museum is redressing this balance by bringing these overlooked stories to the fore.
The Ladies
Today, the Museum’s walls are hung with portraits of the many men who were instrumental in establishing and running the Foundling Hospital. But where are the women? The Museum has tracked down portraits of the remarkable women who were Thomas Coram’s very first supporters, whose vision and empathy in the face of male indifference galvanized his campaign. In September 2018, portraits of these ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ will replace those of the male Governors that hang in the Museum’s historic Picture Gallery, to take their rightful place on the site of the charity they helped found. 
On returning to London in 1704 following a successful career as a shipbuilder in America, Thomas Coram was appalled by the sight of abandoned babies. Determined to provide desperate mothers with an alternative, his relentless campaign to establish a Foundling Hospital would occupy the next seventeen years of his life. To set up a charity for the ‘maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’ required a Charter of Incorporation from King George II. To achieve this, Coram needed the support of powerful people whose opinion had influence with the King. For a decade he knocked on the doors of wealthy and influential men, asking them to put their name to his petition, but not one would. 
Refusing to be beaten, Coram changed tack and had the novel idea of approaching respectable ladies, appealing to their emotions. The growing fashion for sentiment and benevolence provided fertile ground for Coram’s lobbying. In 1729 the Duchess of Somerset signed Coram’s petition. Her support was the catalyst, paving the way for her fellow Duchesses to follow suit. Thus the first petition to the King in 1735 came from 21 ‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’.
The support of these ‘ladies of quality & distinction’ proved to be a turning point in Coram’s endeavour and without them the lives of thousands of children would not have been saved. The Duchesses lobbied the men on Coram’s behalf and just two years after the Ladies’ petition, George II received a second petition from ‘Noblemen and Gentleman’ – 375 signatures in total, including the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales. In 1739 the King granted a Royal Charter to the Foundling Hospital, enabling Coram to realise his dream.
Pictured here is Isabella, Duchess of Manchester (1705 or 8 – 1786) who signed Coram’s petition on 6 January 1730. lsabella was the daughter of art-loving John Montagu, 2nd Duke of Montagu and Mary Churchill, daughter of the great Duke of Marlborough. On 16 April 1723 she married her cousin William Montagu, 2nd Duke of Manchester. It was apparently a love match, since Lady Montagu wrote just before the marriage that 'Belle is at this instant in the paradisial state of receiving visits every day from a passionate lover, who is her first love, whom she thinks is the finest gentleman in Europe and is besides that, Duke of Manchester’.   The marriage was childless, but some years after her husband's death she married (secretly) the Irishman Edward Hussey, who assumed his wife's name of Montagu on his marriage and was eventually to become the Earl of Beaulieu and High Steward of Windsor. Belle's father ‘of the Privy Garden' was one of the signatories of the 1739 Foundling Hospital Charter, and her first husband lived long enough to add his signature also. In this image we see here, the Duchess is pictured as Diana, the goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature in Roman mythology, associated with wild animals and woodland and having the power to talk to and control animals. Diana was also known as the virgin goddess of childbirth and women.
Behind the scenes
Women worked in numerous roles supporting the day-to-day running of the Foundling Hospital, as laundresses, scullery maids, cooks and matrons. Beyond the walls of the Hospital the charity was supported by many wet nurses who fostered the children in their infancy, and inspectors who supervised them, some of whom were women. It was not until the twentieth century that the first woman was appointed as Governor. However, many aristocratic and genteel female supporters advised on delicate issues around the proper care of girls and female staff.
Beatrice Forbes was one of the earliest female Governors of the Foundling Hospital. Shown here is the only portrait of a female Governor in the Foundling Museum’s Collection as Beatrice left this painting to the Hospital in her will in 1944. Born in 1863, she was the daughter of Robert Grey, Treasurer of the Hospital from 1892-1914. In 1903 she married Major Patrick William Forbes in the Foundling Hospital Chapel. Her husband had served in the British Army in Southern Rhodesia, where he had been a pallbearer at Cecil Rhode’s funeral in 1902. ‘Pat’ Forbes became a Governor of the Foundling Hospital in 1904. Beatrice was also elected a Governor in 1934 and was a rare example of a woman involved in managing the affairs of the Hospital. 
Mrs Elizabeth Leicester was an early matron of the Foundling Hospital, working there from 1759 for almost 12 years, covering some of the Hospital’s most challenging years. Between 1756 and 1760 the Hospital accepted funds from Parliament, given on condition that they took in every child offered to them. This resulted in a huge increase in the number of children being admitted, from under 200 a year to around 4,000, and placed huge strain on the Hospital’s resources both financially and administratively. Mrs Leicester would have faced the frequent requests coming in from inspectors for replacement clothing as the foundling children grew up, as well as dealing with the feeding, clothing and care of the high numbers of children who then returned to live at the Hospital during their education. Mrs Leicester left the service of the Hospital in 1770, but reapplied for the position again in 1775. Her application was rejected as the Hospital had an upper age limit for the post of 50 years, and she was by then at least 51 or possibly 57.
Jane Pett was a dry nurse (as opposed to a wet nurse who would have breast-fed a child), who fostered foundling children from infancy until they returned to the Foundling Hospital at the age of around four or five to begin their education. The inspector who supervised nurses in her area of Malling in Kent, Rev Mr Dennis, wrote very warmly about her as an ‘excellent old woman’. It seems that Jane was of unfortunate appearance as she is also described by him as the ‘shrivell’d faced nurse’ and ‘the old girl with the unpromising look’. Her care was exceptional, and Dennis praises her as particularly successful in restoring under-nourished and sickly children to good health, and goes on to recommend her to have further children from the Hospital. Children who had been weaned were particularly sought after by nurses in the country. These were either older women or those who had to manage pregnancies and periods of breast-feeding their own children, in between taking on foundling children to provide useful extra income for the household.
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