On December 19, 1762, 13 young children arrived in Monken Hadley, the first admissions to the Barnet branch of the famous Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury. There was just one small problem – there were no beds for them.

But the hospital was run by Mrs Prudence West, an ‘exceptional lady’ who had previously run the Wool Sack inn in Barnet High Street, where Iceland now stands, and she somehow found enough beds for her young charges.

“The Barnet hospital was the only one of the six branches to be run by a woman,“ explains Yvonne Tomlinson, the curator of a temporary exhibition at Barnet Museum called The Foundling Hospital at Barnet, “the rest were run by boards of men.

“The Barnet branch was Prudence’s idea. She wrote to the board and said there was a suitable building and, when they agreed, she spent the next three months getting it ready for the children."

The Foundling Hospital and its branches existed to take in deserted or abandoned children and care for them until they were put up for apprenticeship. The Bloomsbury hospital was established in 1741 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram.

Prudence’s job was to supervise the wet and dry nurses who looked after the babies in their own homes in the country, and then to care for and train the children when they returned, aged four or five, to Barnet.

“From a very young age the girls would have learned to do things like sewing or knitting,“ says Yvonne, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from where she believes the hospital once stood, “while the boys would have done things like unpicking old rope and mending their own clothes. They would have had a fairly basic education, reading only, so that they could read instructions when they were apprenticed out. They would have gone into all sorts of different trades – a lot of the boys went into the services, or worked for tailors and blacksmiths and the girls mostly went into domestic service.

“Mrs West arranged five or six apprenticeships in Barnet, including two to the local minister of St Mary’s in Monken Hadley, the Reverend David Garrow, and she also took in one herself, a girl who was given the name Prudence West.“

The conditions the children lived in at the hospital would appear rather grim to us today but, says Yvonne, many of the children would have died if they hadn’t been taken in as they had literally been left out on the street.

The Barnet branch of The Foundling Hospital closed in 1768. “There had been a period called the General Reception,“ Yvonne explains, “when Parliament agreed to fund part of the cost of running the London hospital on the condition that they took in every child who arrived on the doorstep – and so there was a massive influx of children from all over London. They realised very quickly that they’d have to set up branch hospitals, but when the General Reception period ended, they could decide who to admit and who to reject and so there were fewer children being accepted.“

The temporary exhibition at Barnet Museum includes a number of items from The Foundling Museum, on the site of the original London hospital, the Coram Organisation and the London Metropolitan Archives. There are seven of Mrs West’s letters, including one requesting the beds, billet books and the tokens, or identifiers, that the children arrived with, such as notes or coins. There are also the apprenticeship documents for the younger Prudence West.

  • The Foundling Hospital at Barnet and Foundling Voices, an aural history, is at Barnet Museum, Wood Street, Barnet until January 13, when the original objects from the Foundling Museum will be replaced with facsimiles, which will be on display until the end of February. The exhibition will move to Hendon library, East Barnet library and Chipping Barnet library. Details: 020 8440 8066, www.facebook.com/barnetmuseum