Poor Women and Elite Men

Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital, by Jessica A. Sheetz-Nguyen, London: Continuum, 2012, xii + 258 pp. (softcover), ISBN 978 1 441 1 4112 5

Book cover

Elizabeth M., a waitress in a vegetarian restaurant, sought help from the London Foundling Hospital in 1891.  She had met a respectably employed man, Daniel B., a foreman in the office of a dairy company, and the two began courting.  They decided to marry and engaged in sexual intercourse.  She became pregnant but then found Daniel reluctant to continue the relationship.  He disappeared, and she later learned that he had fled for America.  Elizabeth sought refuge at Miss Pye’s Home for Unwed Mothers, and then asked the London Foundling Hospital to take her child.  Her petition was successful, and, according to Jessica Sheetz-Nguyen, this ‘preserved her character for the rest of her life’ (117).  Accounts such as this, drawn from the archives of the Foundling Hospital, form the basis for an examination of the interaction between unwed mothers and the men who managed the institution that was described by Henry Brougham as ‘the ornament of the metropolis’ (50).

Sheetz-Nguyen begins by outlining the legal environment that placed responsibility for a child born outside marriage firmly and nearly exclusively on the mother.  The central chapters of the book present various factors that entered into the hospital committee’s decision on whether to accept and raise petitioners’ babies. She argues that applicants from affluent districts, particularly West London, received favorable treatment.  Age and employment factored into these judgments, as the authorities preferred relatively young women and those employed as respectable servants in wealthy households.  Each mother had to present detailed information about her relationship with the baby’s father and the context for the ‘criminal conversation’ (sexual relations outside marriage).  The decision-makers viewed those who had been in relatively stable relationships and those who reported promises of marriage more favorably than they did women who didn’t know the fathers well or had been coerced into sex.  Finally, women who had support from affluent and respectable individuals, especially employers or family members, improved their chances of winning over the committee.  The hospital officials applied a ‘calculus of respectability’ in determining whether or not to accept the mothers’ petitions.

The author sheds light on the views of petitioners as well.  She argues that these women shared the values of the investigators: ‘The Foundling Hospital Board of Governors, committee men, recommenders, and the working women who applied agreed on what constituted a respectable character (147)’.  Driven by ‘the extreme social pressure of shame and humiliation (102)’, the women sought to preserve their respectability as well as their jobs and prospects for marriage.  They struggled to regain their good character through the redemptive promise of having their children cared for by the Foundling Hospital.  This does not minimize the emotional strain they faced.  For many of them, giving up their children was a wrenching decision, but this choice was necessary to overcome the shame and moral stain of an unmarried pregnancy and to restart a life of respectable virtue.

There is much of value in this book.  The ‘calculus of respectability’ is a useful framework that offers real insight into the decision making of Foundling Hospital leaders.  Sheetz-Nguyen does a good job of explaining the diverse variables that entered into this equation, from demographic factors such as age to more complex questions surrounding the nature of the relationships that led to pregnancies.  Particularly promising here is the material on geography and the link between social geography and perceptions of respectability.  The author’s deep immersion in the sources yields impressive details about the lives, loves and struggles of the women whose worlds were thrown into crisis by unexpected pregnancies.  Some of the most moving accounts relate to the varied responses of the women’s families.  Some embraced the unwed mothers and fought to preserve their reputation and that of the family as a whole.  Others shunned the women, leaving them to face extraordinarily difficult choices with little support.

One of the most suggestive issues raised in the book, and one that Sheetz-Nguyen does not address directly, lies in the disconnect between the discourse surrounding sex outside of marriage that condemned it outright as shameful ‘criminal conversation’ and the acceptance of sex within the context of a stable relationship and a promise of marriage.  Many historians, including a number cited by Sheetz-Nguyen, have argued that popular morality accepted sexual activity when it occurred in the context of established courtship relationships and marriage plans.[i] Sheetz-Nguyen, on the other hand, suggests that petitioning women and hospital authorities shared condemnatory attitudes toward the women’s sexual histories.  Women reported their ‘disgrace’, and the committee valued ‘chastity’.  The evidence she presents, though, suggests that the committee and its petitioners agreed that premarital sex, under certain circumstances, was consistent with respectability.  Thus, it appears that for the women, ‘shame and humiliation . . . stemmed from the duplicity of the father’, not the sexual behavior itself.  As Sheetz-Nguyen concludes, ‘committee men admitted the most candidates from those who provided evidence of a 4-6 month relationship and with an affirmative promise to marriage. (114)’  In the ‘calculus of respectability’, sexual activity within such a relationship did not undermine a woman’s claim to a good character.

In her claim that petitioning women accepted the values of the elite men who made decisions about admission to the Foundling Hospital, Sheetz-Nguyen adopts an uncomplicated view of these women’s approach to respectability.  They ‘gave up their infants to retain their “respectability”’ (164).  She rejects the notion that these women could deceive the committee, arguing ‘the women had to answer these questions as honestly as possible’ (105).  The women’s testimonies before the hospital committee, though, were performances, and some scholars have recognized that for many in the working-class, respectability was a kind of performance as well.[ii] Many poor men and women learned to behave in ways that would endear them to middle-class philanthropists.  Where working-class notions of respectability did not align with the attitudes of elites, they put on a show and said what they needed to say in order to get what was offered.  There may have been little distance (as Sheetz-Nguyen suggests) between the values and standards internalized by these women and those of the elite men who judged them, but it makes sense that these women sought to put on the best face possible in their interviews.  Rather than viewing their testimony as honest accounts of their behavior, perhaps it makes sense to understand them as performances geared to convince the committee of the petitioners’ worthiness.

Sheetz-Nguyen presents a good deal of quantitative material to illustrate her arguments about the calculations of hospital committees.  At times, though, her arguments are not adequately supported by the data.  For example, she argues that the committee favored women who were respectably employed, particularly relatively high-ranking servants in affluent households (94).  Her data include the percentage of petitioners from various employment categories (using categories drawn from a study of women’s employment by Clara Collett).  The data show that 31.46% of petitioners fit into Collett’s ‘Class 3’, which included cooks and upper housemaids.  The table does not, however, show rates of acceptance of these petitions, which would be essential to an argument about the committee’s preferences.  In addition, Collett’s ‘Class 3’ includes, according to Sheetz-Nguyen, ‘cooks, upper housemaids, nurses, milliners, embroiders, tailoresses and seamstresses’ (92).  In the associated tables, the author shortens this list to ‘Cook embroider, maid, nurse’ (Table 4.4, 93) and ‘Cook, Upper House Maid, Nurse’ (Table 4.5, 95).  How many of these women were seamstresses or tailoresses?  What were the acceptance rates of women in specific employment groups?  The author concludes, ‘The data makes a compelling point . . . only those more respectable women, such as upper house maids and cooks, were given preference over general servants’ (94).  Without rates of acceptance and more refined employment categories, however, the data fall short of proving her point.

Victorian Women, Unwed Mothers and the London Foundling Hospital offers a fascinating consideration of the interaction of desperate female petitioners and the elite men who decided their fates.  The framework used to analyze these decisions, a ‘calculus of respectability’, is a useful tool for explaining  the variety of factors that entered into the Foundling Hospital’s decisions.  We can learn a great deal from narratives derived from the archive of this institution and presented here.  Unfortunately, the author’s imperfect use of quantitative data detracts from the overall effectiveness of the argument.

Andrew August

Abington College, Penn State University


Andrew August is Professor of History in the Abington College, Penn State University.  He is the author of Poor Women’s Lives: Gender, Work and Poverty in Late-Victorian London (1999), The British Working Class, 1832-1940 (2007) and the forthcoming documents collection, The Urban Working-Class in Britain, 1830-1914.  He is currently studying assaults in late-Victorian East London.

[i] For an example based on research in the archives of the Foundling Hospital, see John R. Gillis, ‘Servants, Sexual Relations, and the Risks of Illegitimacy in London, 1801-1900,’ Feminist Studies 5:1 (Spring, 1979), 142-173 (p. 157).

[ii] For the classic statement of this view, see Peter Bailey, ‘”Will the Real Bill Banks Please Stand up?” Towards a Role Analysis of Mid-Victorian Working-Class Respectability,’ Journal of Social History 12:3 (Spring, 1979), 336-353.

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