Recent News

Cruel Fates and ‘Unnatural Mothers’ - Abandoned Children in Georgian Waterford

Content Warning: The following post contains some graphic descriptions of infanticide and the fate of new-born children.

Today, we are once again stepping back from the parties and finery of the super-rich, and instead looking at the harsh lives of ordinary people during this time. While much of the country thrived, some suffered profoundly and for those living in extreme poverty, they often could not even afford to support their own children, and turned to extreme measures in an effort to save them - or to save themselves. Foundling children were a reality of life in the eighteenth-century, and while some mothers abandoned their babies in an effort to given them a better life, often the prospects were not good.

The earliest case of an abandoned child in the diocese is in 1752 in the main Catholic parish of the city, Holy Trinity. This parish experiences the highest level of foundling discoveries with ten children left either on the church doorstep or elsewhere in the parish in 1797 alone - of all the baptisms in that parish in that year, almost six percent were foundling children. Across Waterford and Lismore, only Tramore seems to experience no abandonment at all, and Dungarvan sees just two foundlings over the course of its records. When these children were discovered, it was often in a variety of locations, but for the most part, children were left around the church and city streets. In April 1797 in Holy Trinity, two children are left in the vestibule and upon the step of the cathedral within a week of each other, though how long they were there before they were discovered is unclear. Others were left upon relatively busy streets to be discovered by passers-by.

The earliest case of an abandoned child in the diocese is in 1752 in the main Catholic parish of the city, Holy Trinity. This parish experiences the highest level of foundling discoveries with ten children left either on the church doorstep or elsewhere in the parish in 1797 alone - of all the baptisms in that parish in that year, almost six percent were foundling children. Across Waterford and Lismore, only Tramore seems to experience no abandonment at all, and Dungarvan sees just two foundlings over the course of its records. When these children were discovered, it was often in a variety of locations, but for the most part, children were left around the church and city streets. In April 1797 in Holy Trinity, two children are left in the vestibule and upon the step of the cathedral within a week of each other, though how long they were there before they were discovered is unclear. Others were left upon relatively busy streets to be discovered by passers-by.


In many cases, the name given to the child would signify their place of discovery, even after they had grown out of the care of church or workhouse authorities. In Houses of Industry the name sometimes given to a child is ‘Industry’ a clear marker of their beginnings in life. In Cahir a naming system for these abandoned children seems to have existed - every male child discovered abandoned in Cahir is assigned the Christian name of Oliver, and every female foundling is named Mary. For one child the certainty of his start in life is made clearer by the addition of the surname ‘Hotel’, presumably after the location of his discovery. Assigning these names served a dual purpose in eighteenth and nineteenth century Catholic society -on one hand, the children had no names, and assigning a surname at random could only cause confusion, and on the other hand, marking them out in society restored some order in delicate Georgian society, forever marking them for their unusual beginnings in life.
While it may be something of an exaggeration, in the eighteenth century abandonment was seen almost as ‘legalised infanticide’. This is because even when all went right for the child , and they were given a place within the Dublin foundling hospital or an adopted family, only a very small percentage actually survived to see their first birthday. In one year alone, 100 children entered the foundling hospital and by the following year, only two remained alive because of bad conditions and resources stretched to the limit. For women in poverty, with no father to support them, the only option that remained open to them was becoming a burden on the parish, or supporting herself and her family through less attractive means. This led many women to turn to abandonment to regain control over her life. In some cases, this abandonment was almost indistinguishable from attempted infanticide, as was the case with Mary Knox, who was ‘found on ye [sic] mountain of [Slieverue]’ on 20 February 1793 ‘at which time of finding ye [sic] child she seemed to have been born about ten days’. While Mary was found and taken to be baptised and re-homed, leaving her atop a mountain seems hardly conducive to her discovery and survival, much like children left on roadsides and in ditches throughout the countryside where they often froze or starved to death.


It was in fact illegal to leave one’s child in any place other than an officially sanctioned foundling hospital but space was limited. In London during the same time period, a lottery system was implemented to win the chance to leave your child in their care. Many women could also not afford to make the trip to Dublin and turned to leaving their child in the safest place they could think of. In 1771, the Waterford Chronicle, reports on a case in County Laois, where a mother by the name of Anne Whelan is committed to the county jail for leaving ‘her female bastard child’ on the doorstop of a Patrick Ryan, ‘in the dead of night’. In 1806 in the city an ‘infantum expositum’ (exposed child) is left on in the doorway of Master Morris who soon discovered the child and took it to be baptised within the inner-city parish of Holy Trinity. Morris assuming the child to be Catholic is an interesting indication of the views wealthy Protestant landowners held about their catholic neighbours. The Poor Law Inquiry in County Clare notes around the same time that they were of the opinion that no mother ever left her child out of a sense of unwillingness to care for it, but instead out of fear and shame about their predicament. The mother in County Laois and the mother of the Waterford foundling left their children, not in an unsafe and exposed location to wait for nature to take its course, but upon the doorstep of an occupied house, with the clear intention of its being discovered and cared for.


In some cases of true desperation women turned to murder. The crime of infanticide was viewed by society as one of the highest crimes that could be committed - an act against nature as the traditionally nurturing mother turns to violence against her own progeny. However by the 1770s capital punishment was gradually diminishing in infanticide cases as it was usually a very difficult crime to prove. In 1607 an act was passed against such ‘lewd Women’ that gave birth to ‘Bastard Children’ and then ‘to avoid their Shame, and toe [sic] escape Punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the Death of their Children’. In some cases, it is acknowledged that the accused may simply have given birth to a stillborn child by themselves, and in private, after successfully hiding their condition from their employers and their families. Concealment of such a child was still a crime, but not an offence on equal footing with the murder of a new-born. If however, they could not provide one witness to confirm that child was still-born, under the terms of the legislation, they would be sentenced to death, being considered guilty of infanticide.

In some cases of true desperation women turned to murder. The crime of infanticide was viewed by society as one of the highest crimes that could be committed - an act against nature as the traditionally nurturing mother turns to violence against her own progeny. However by the 1770s capital punishment was gradually diminishing in infanticide cases as it was usually a very difficult crime to prove. In 1607 an act was passed against such ‘lewd Women’ that gave birth to ‘Bastard Children’ and then ‘to avoid their Shame, and toe [sic] escape Punishment, do secretly bury or conceal the Death of their Children’. In some cases, it is acknowledged that the accused may simply have given birth to a stillborn child by themselves, and in private, after successfully hiding their condition from their employers and their families. Concealment of such a child was still a crime, but not an offence on equal footing with the murder of a new-born. If however, they could not provide one witness to confirm that child was still-born, under the terms of the legislation, they would be sentenced to death, being considered guilty of infanticide.

Many of the newspaper articles on the subject, printed in Waterford during the period focus on the public gory fascination with crimes of this nature, vilifying the mother with graphic descriptions of the way she left her child. In the above case, it is made clear that Anne Whelan left her child ‘naked and exposed’, emphasising her helplessness and the cruelty of her abandonment. In other cases, children who died as a result of the actions of their mother, be it a deliberate killing or being left to die have the circumstances of their discovery described violently, with body parts ‘torn off’ by the pigs that first found the body, their faces ‘disfigured’, their eyes ‘picked out’ by ‘birds of prey’. These cases are printed in the Chronicle from as far away as Laois and Longford in the ‘country-news’ section of the paper, clear evidence of their popularity with readers, but infanticide was happening at home in the city as well. On Friday 23 April 1771, a new-born child was found drowned in a ditch in Newtown within the city, ‘supposed to be left there by its unnatural mother’. This wording is deliberate, words like ‘unnatural’ and ‘barbarous’ are common for newspaper reports and court proceedings for the late eighteenth-century across the Britain and Ireland as they perfectly described the public horror felt at such an event. To commit such an act as infanticide went directly against the common perception of the mother as naturally gentle and nurturing. The Poor Inquiry made a point of stating in their examination of ‘bastardy’ in county Clare that a woman capable of infanticide ‘must be dead to all the feelings of nature’.


Eighteenth century Ireland was often not a kind place to live, especially for a pregnant single woman, or a family groaning under the weight of more children than they could support. Options were limited and the shame associated with such a situation must have been worse than we can ever begin to imagine. For many of these mothers, we have to assume that they were doing what they thought was best, and trying to give their children a better life than they could provide themselves. However, the reality was that these children, if they survived at all, faced a life of uncertainty, forever marked by their abandonment.