An ‘orphaned mite of blue-eyed, wondering humanity’: Adoption, sentiment, suspicion and the poor laws

In 1878, The Cambrian newspaper departed from its usual dry reporting of the meetings of Swansea’s Guardians of the Poor to publish an account of a ‘child adoption’, in which a female child was taken from the workhouse to be ‘adopted’ by a local woman. The only comparable entry in the guardians’ minute book is from their meeting on 22 August and relates to a Mrs Esau’s application to ‘adopt’ Bessie Havard, it was written without any of the drama and relish of The Cambrian’s version which I have copied in full below. I don’t know how much sentimental licence the newspaper used and to what extent it was a true representation of the guardians’ conversation, but its worth reproducing verbatim as the text raises many questions which I explore below.

The Cambrian, 6 September 1878, ‘Child adoption’.

“There, take her, and God bless you!”

Twas a Guardian of the Poor of the Swansea Union who said this from his seat at the horseshoe Board, round the outer rim of which sat a dozen or eighteen fellow guardians, while in the centre stood a fine a fine, motherly women of the apparently well-to-do working class, holding by the hand a golden curly-haired pauper child of from four to five years.

“You will take her entirely off our hand, to bring her up as your own child?” asks the Chairman.

“Yes, I will, sir”, is the reply, “I have had two children from here before, sir”.

“Have you indeed; and what is become of them?” a guardian inquires.

“The first one is married; she married from our house, and is doing well. The other little one died, poor dear, and as sorry we were after her as if she was our own. My husband and I feel very lonely without a child about the house, and so want to take another. But we should like to have one that would not be interfered with or claimed by any one in the future, sir”.

“Exactly. Does the master of the workhouse or the Relieving-officer know the antecedents of this child? Are there any relatives living? Is there anyone who can claim the child?”

Both these officers agreed in stating that the mother was dead, that nothing had ever been known of any other relatives, and that no one would be likely to interfere with the little one, except the poor woman who had suckled it in the workhouse – and that was not very probable.

“Then you will take her now, as she is?” continued the Chairman.

“Yes, sir”.

“You don’t want us to give you anything for taking her?”

“No, sir; you gave me a sovereign with the others to buy clothes for them; but I don’t want it with this one, because I have got plenty of clothes left by the little one that died, which will fit her very well”.

“Ah, that is very satisfactory, indeed”, said the Chairman.

“A very good thing for the child”, whispered one guardian to another. And as the poor, orphaned mite of blue-eyed, wondering humanity went out from the board-room, led by the kindly hand of the foster-mother, another Guardian said aloud and heartily –

“There, take her, and God bless you!”


Swansea Guardians 1895

So, isn’t that just lovely?

Even if the language used by The Cambrian is rather sickly and sentimentalised, the little orphan girl found a loving family to care for her. But can we believe in this happy ending? Are we too influenced by revelations of historical child abuse inquiries, cases of ‘grooming’ and sex trafficking to take this tale at face value?

If we were particularly cynical, we could be very suspicious of the ‘fine motherly’  woman’s insistence that the child ‘would not be interfered with or claimed by any one in the future’. Similarly, in what circumstances did her other ‘adopted’ daughter die? However, if the woman genuinely wanted to care for a child as her own, it is understandable that she needed to be sure that it would not be taken away from her at a later date. Adoption, as we know it today, did not become a legal process until the early twentieth century and the adoptive mother would have had no legal rights should the birth-parents return.

John Talbot Dillwyn Llewelyn (seated fifth from left in photo above) was chairman at this time, and there is abundant evidence of his (and his father John Dillwyn Llewelyn’s) kindness and concern for the pauper children in the care of the guardians. Although there is no reporting in the article of any investigation into the suitability of the woman and her husband, home visits of prospective foster parents, as well as consultation with their neighbours, was undertaken by relieving officers and, later in the century, by female guardians and female visitors.

However, as we know, such checks have not always protected vulnerable children, then or now.

What do you think? Please get in touch.

Guardians minutes of meetings can be consulted at West Glamorgan Archives Service.

For more of my thoughts on historical child abuse, see Journal of Victorian Culture Online, ‘The elephant in the room: Questioning the absence of paedophilia in children’s histories

For more information on the Dillwyn Llewelyn family see the Penllergare Trust web pages


3 thoughts on “An ‘orphaned mite of blue-eyed, wondering humanity’: Adoption, sentiment, suspicion and the poor laws

  1. Wonderfully heart-warming, especially as no hint of cynicism crept into my mind as I read the newspaper report.
    I have to say, I’m so delighted I’ve discovered your site – a window on a world that many of us, myself included, discovered through Dickens and yearned to learn more.
    I’ve recently written a ghost story, The Tenement House, that you may find interesting. It’s available here:

    Kind regards, Paul

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