John Rack, a child that was found

A recent visit to London’s Foundling Museum prompted me to follow up the story of a local foundling.

Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in London in 1739. He had been moved by the sight of children abandoned on the streets of London and wanted to provide an alternative option for mothers who felt unable to care for their babies.[i] The Foundling Hospital was Britain’s first home for abandoned children.  When babies were accepted into the Hospital they were given new names, removing the ties to their parentage. But what happened to those children who weren’t admitted to care of Coram’s institution or those who weren’t in London?

Fleeting glimpses of one such appear in the records in Kenton, and I have attempted to recover some of this child’s story. The brief mentions of this true foundling – a child that was found – can only give some bare details but even so there is enough to recover a shadowy outline of this one foundling child. As with the babies at Coram’s, this child’s origins will now never be known. It seems that a baby boy was found abandoned somewhere within the parish boundaries of Kenton in May 1747. The baby was almost certainly a newborn infant, although this isn’t anywhere specified. The first mention of him is in the Overseers’ accounts which state that Joan Standfast had been paid 2/- (two shillings) ‘for keeping the child that was found.’[ii]

Unless the parents could be found and held responsible for the upkeep of their child, in such circumstances the child was likely to prove a charge on the parish poor rate for many years to come. With Overseers generally concerned with keeping the poor rate low this was to be avoided if at all possible. And so the Overseers offered a reward for discovering who had abandoned the child.

For crying a reward for the child that was found to Kenn and Powderham      [two neighbouring parishes] and Kenton and carrying notice – 1/6.’[iii

Their efforts were evidently unsuccessful – the child remained with Joan Standfast. Joan Standfast was apparently engaged as the child’s wet nurse. She herself had given birth to a son, Richard, in November of the previous year, a child described in the parish records as her ‘bastard son.’ Joan had been receiving relief of small amounts from the poor rate on an ad-hoc basis accounted for on the basis that she was ‘in need’. It is tempting to speculate that by placing the child with Joan, the Overseers had, at least, managed to achieve a saving of the roughly weekly sixpences that had been paid to Joan. Once she was in receipt of regular payment s of 2/- per week for keeping the child there are no further entries for the ad-hoc payments for herself for as long as the child was with her.

On the ninth of June the parish registers show that the child was baptised and for the first time begins to take on an identity. We now know that the child is, in fact, a boy, and he is given the name John Rack. How this name was chosen isn’t clear. There appears to be no-one in Devon called Rack at the time so he hasn’t been named after an overseer or benefactor. When children at Coram’s were re-named they were often given names of famous people or benefactors but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for John.

John stayed with Joan Standfast for almost a year whilst Joan continued to receive 2/- per week from the Overseers for that period. The Overseers’ accounts also show amounts being paid for items of clothing for John; capes, a stay, shifts, stockings, and shoes are all accounted for during this period as well as an entry suggestive of rudimentary medical care. One entry reads ‘for stuf to cover his gound and doing it.’[iv] Gound (also known as rheum) is the mucus that collects in the corner of the eye and in excess can be the sign of an infection or problem with the tear ducts.

In April 1748 the weekly payments to Joan Standfast come to an end. By this time John would have been weaned and no longer in need of a wet nurse. By September Joan is once again in receipt of occasional payments as she is once again in need but John is unaccounted for. He is still within the parish as payments continue to show for items of clothing for him, but there are no weekly payments for his care. The most likely explanation is that he is now in the poor house and being cared for there, maybe even by other inmates. His name re-appears in the accounts in 1751 when weekly amounts of 1/3 for his upkeep start to be accounted for. This, however, seems to be more likely to be related to a change in the way the accounts were prepared than a change in John’s circumstances, as other inmates of the poor house are also then listed individually.

John’s name continues to show in the accounts with weekly sums until August 1754, by which time he was seven years old, when an entry shows that £1 5s was paid to a Mr Brice in some capacity linked to John Rack’s apprenticeship and a further 4/- is paid for the indentures. This is the final entry for John contained in the Overseers’ accounts.[v] However, the parish apprenticeship records show that an indenture was made on 17th August 1754 which apprenticed John Rack in husbandry to William Martin until he reached the age of twenty-four.[vi]

No further evidence of John Rack has been traced in the Kenton parish records. So what happened to this child with no known parents and an invented name? Since there were no other people of the name Rack in Devon at this time it seems very likely that an entry in the parish records for nearby Topsham could relate to him. In 1772 there is a record of a John Rack marrying Elizabeth Pudner in Topsham. John Rack is said to be a mariner of Woodbury and Elizabeth is of Topsham. At this time many farming folk in the area combined a life of husbandry with some seafaring or fishing roles, so that fact that the child John was apprenticed in husbandry does not preclude the mariner who married at Topsham from being the same person who was apprenticed in husbandry in Kenton eighteen years earlier. This couple went on to have at least three children; Ann who was baptised in 1778, Sally baptised in 1781, and Jane baptised in 1784.

The fragments of evidence have proved to be sufficient to establish an outline of this one life but there must be many more similar stories obscured in parish records throughout the country. Coram’s Foundling Hospital saved many lives but many others must have been cared for by parishes in the way that John Rack was.

[i] The story of the Foundling Hospital is recounted in Gillian Pugh’s London’s forgotten children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital published in 2007 by The History Press

[ii] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 3 May 1747

[iii] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 17 May 1747

[iv] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book 16 August 1747

[v] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO4 Overseers account book

[vi] Devon Heritage Centre, Kenton/70A/PO6899 Overseers Apprenticeship Records


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