Please, sir, I want some more

A new exhibition on food at the Foundling Museum is worth digesting, says Nancy Durrant

“Food, glorious food. Hot sausage and mustard. While we’re in the mood, cold jelly and custard,” sang the workhouse boys at the opening of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! as they collected their single portion of miserable gruel. Yet most workhouse children of the era would never have seen a sausage, let alone jelly, or tasted the miraculous condiment. A little more fortunate were those children abandoned at birth and left on the steps of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, now in central London — although only on special occasions.

A new exhibition at the Foundling Museum, built on the site of the hospital, explores the role of food in the lives of the foundlings. The Foundling Hospital was set up in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for infants at risk of abandonment — mostly those born to unmarried mothers or to poor families already struggling to care for their existing children. As Feeding the 400 explains, one of its fundamental intentions was to ensure through diet that the children in its care grew up strong and healthy — and on a budget.

The food historian Jane Levi has delved deep into the museum’s archives and dug up some fascinating items — from correspondence about soggy bread to diet tables listing the daily menus (the word “ditto” appears depressingly often). Recipe books and newspaper reports illustrate how important food was to the basic functions of the hospital, but also how it was used to prepare children for life outside and reinforce their position in society (clue: not high).

Children would be fed softened bread or rice mixed with broth or cow’s milk using a feeding hornSCIENCE MUSEUM, LONDON/JENNIE HILLS

Take gruel, for instance. All men may in theory be created equal, but gruels are not. The exhibition leaflet contains the recipes for several gruels that instantly establish the social status of their eaters. The workhouse gruel immortalised in Oliver! (of which there is a clip in the show) was a grim soup of mostly water boiled with oats. The gruel given to the foundlings was, although not served in lavish quantities, at least made with full-fat milk. The “governor’s gruel”, which might well have been served to those in charge of the hospital, was a magnificent concoction made with pearl barley and including three egg yolks, half a pint of cream, half a pint of sweet white wine, currants, sugar and the zest of a lemon.

The inequality between the children, who ate in the grand surroundings of the main dining hall in strict silence (audio resonates through the show of the children singing or saying grace then sitting down with barely the scrape of a chair) and those who cared for them is made much of here. Remembering Princess Margaret’s visit to the hospital’s residential school in Berkhamsted (a clip of her saying “You mest be very praaud of your school” is on display), a former pupil, Patricia Channen, is quoted as saying, rather tartly: “She spoke to a couple of [us], she actually came in and had lunch with us, but I don’t think she had the same lunch as we had. I’m sure she didn’t.”

The foundlings were better off than children in the workhouse (the bespoke Foundling Hospital china crockery is starkly compared with the wooden utensils provided to workhouse dwellers) or indeed those of the working poor, in that they ate three meals a day, but for much of the hospital’s history those meals were dull and paltry in comparison with those served to the grown-ups. Menus from the week ending August 2, 1937 (by which time the food had improved vastly), show that while the staff enjoyed cutlets and steak with potatoes, tomatoes and greens, the children made do with “meat pies” — made with cheaper cuts, as we know from the records — potatoes and fruit.

The potatoes would most likely have been grown in the hospital’s vegetable garden: the steward’s notes from the 1830s show that in late summer it supplied tens of dozens of cabbages of several varieties every week, as well as beans, roots, salads, herbs and peas. When not in lessons, the male foundlings were invariably put to work in the garden; a heartbreakingly small set of child’s gardening tools hangs on the wall.

Since the hospital took children from birth, the feeding of babies was a central concern. The physician and founding governor Hans Sloane’s research into death rates at the hospital established the superiority of wet-nursing over dry, where children were fed mixtures of softened bread or rice mixed with broth or cow’s milk using a feeding horn, which looks very much like something a Viking might use to drink mead.

The gruel given to the foundlings was at least made with full-fat milk

William Cadogan, the physician who in the 1740s became the honorary medical attendant, praised the hospital for sending babies away to be wet-nursed and fostered for the first few years of their lives, although he did also say, in his Essay upon Nursing and the Management of Children in 1749, that “this Business has been too long fatally left to the Management of Women, who cannot be supposed to have proper Knowledge to fit them for such a Task, notwithstanding they look upon it to be their own Province”.

Whether women running the show would have made a difference it’s hard to know, but as it was, says one former foundling in an audio installation here, “We had security, stability; we were educated to a certain standard, but no love.”

A beautiful, almost mural-scale painting by Frederick Cayley Robinson of orphan girls entering and dining in the refectory of a hospital dominates one end of the room. Although it doesn’t show the Foundling Hospital it does evoke the sombre mood of a place in which children were cared for and fed, but starved of familial affection. Another voice on the audio paints a more mischievous picture, however, of girls saving carrots, currant buns and tiny pieces of chocolate for weeks to have midnight feasts. Joy will find a way, it seems, usually accompanied by chocolate.

What isn’t made much of is that since its foundation the Foundling Hospital was grappling — mostly successfully — with a question that still resonates in our educational establishments: how do you feed a large number of children healthily and cheaply? The answer, says this exhibition, is scrupulous accounts, growing your own vegetables, and masses and masses of bread.

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