Exhibition Review: The Fallen Woman (The Foundling Museum)

In a quiet London square not far from the British Museum is Coram Fields, home of the Foundling Museum and the site of the original Foundling Hospital, started in 1741 by a philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. He had been shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the London streets and he agitated for seventeen years for the foundation of a foundling hospital. The museum explores and exhibits the work of this first children’s charity through art, music and the power of the individual to change society, and until 3 January 2016 has a small but moving exhibition dedicated to the fallen woman and her child in Victorian England.

The woman who engaged in sexual activity outside the marital tie both horrified and fascinated many in this period. There was much emphasis on the purity and innocence of womanhood and the woman as the angel of the household and moral example to husbands, children and servants: and as that moral guardian they were regarded as even more culpable than men if they strayed. Men, it was held, could not help themselves where sex was concerned – women should know better.

Women who found themselves unmarried and pregnant in the nineteenth century faced huge social stigma and ostracism, often being turned out of their employment and disowned by their families. Of course with the numbers of women working outside the home, especially in domestic service, it was inevitable that many women would find themselves sexual prey for fellow servants or the men in their employers’ family: and while some of pregnancies arose from mutual relationships others were described as ‘seductions’ but were the result of outright rape – lured into a house and plied with drink or tricked by a man into entering an empty building before being assaulted occurring many times in the women’s testimony.

Part of the exhibition shows the completed petitions submitted to the Governors of the Foundling Hospital by unmarried mothers who hoped that their children could be admitted to be cared for, and sad reading some of them make – harrowing details about how they became pregnant, their relationship with the child’s father – and the process for these women was no means straightforward at a time for them of huge emotional distress. Even the Foundling Hospital subjected the petitioners and their stories to detailed enquiry to find out whether they were true or not, and this was an organisation dedicated to helping such women. It was heartening to read that not every woman was wholly abandoned by those she knew once she found she was pregnant – there are testimonies that such and such is a good daughter or a good servant who will be employed again.

Deserted - A Foundling Frank Holl 1893

Other displays in the exhibition include paintings from leading artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Smith, George Frederick Watts and Robert Dowling as well as newspaper illustrations and stereoscopes that depict what the ideal role of women was in society, the dangers posed to women when it came to dealing with the opposite sex and the consequences of not adhering to society’s rules. Some of the paintings made use of devices such as Biblical analogies to direct the viewer to the moral message behind the painting. Examples of these include Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast which depicted a father in fury ordering his errant daughter carrying her child out of the house. The warmth inside the house is in contrast to the storm raging outside which is an obvious metaphor for Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Other paintings made use of symbolisms such as for instance with Alfred Elmory’s On the Brink which showed a woman alone in a casino, having unsuccessfully gambled the money she had with her. A shadowy man stands behind her clearly offering a proposition which she’s considering. Next to her are two pots of flowering plants – a passion flower and lily respectively both representing desire and purity. The message here is clear; the viewer is lectured on the evils of gambling and how it had helped bring about this woman’s ruin.

I found the exhibition carefully curated and the objects displayed under four main themes – the main role and expectation of women in Victorian England, the dangers a woman faced outside the home, the consequences if she stepped out of line and the role of Foundling Hospital. The exhibition does take great pains to point out that the cliché of the unmarried mother turning to prostitution is mostly a device used for fiction and did not happen often. The reality was mostly more prosaic; the woman ended up either giving the baby up for adoption or in some cases; she kept the baby with help from her family or employer. Other cases resulted into mothers being reunited with their babies after having regained some modicum of respectability through marriage or employment.

Today if a woman falls pregnant and she’s not married no-one bats an eyelid and life goes on. A woman has the freedom to choose whether to carry the pregnancy to term or not, give the baby up for adoption or not and to marry or not to marry the father of the child or simply carry on as a single mother. Pregnancy out of wedlock does not carry the same stigma as it did even 40 years ago and this exhibition is a timely reminder of how far women and society’s attitude have come from the Victorian era.


Deserted – A Foundling by Frank Holl (1893)

The Fallen Woman is on at The Foundling Museum until 3 January 2016. Admission included with ticket to the museum. For more information please go to http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/


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