Finding the Mother of an Abandoned Infant

This year I revisited some of my Aldous ancestors on Ancestry.com. In my search, I came across a marriage record for Herbert Lemon Aldous and Susan Oldham.

As you can see, the document is missing one piece of vital information. Susan did not list a father’s name.

In my years of being a family genealogist, I have come across this occurrence many times. In history, it was quite common for a woman to give birth to a child instead of obtaining an abortion. Religion played a large role in this decision. The church did not condone terminating life for any reason.

There are many reasons why a woman would omit the father’s name from a birth record. She could have had an affair with a married man. A man may have changed his mind about marriage and deserted the woman. There were cases of rape and incest.

I decided to look for Susan’s birth record. The results produced no entry for a Susan Oldham. What I did find was an entry for a “Female” Oldham born in the last quarter of 1881. The mother’s maiden, also Oldham, confirmed that the mother was not married at the time of birth.

The reference of “female” occurred when the parents had not named the child. This event could happen if neither parent survived or if a single woman died in childbirth. It could also come about if the child was not expected to live due to illness or deformity. Another reason would be if a woman abandoned her child because she could not care for an infant.

I continued my search for Susan in the England censuses. In 1911, she worked as a cook in Islington, Middlesex, England. In 1901, she worked as a housemaid in Foots Cray, Kent, England.

In 1891, I assumed that I would find 10-year-old Susan living with her mother and a new step-father. What I discovered instead was that Susan was the ward of the Foundling Hospital. On this page, running vertical, was the notation of “England, but the residence of mother not known”.

Did this mean that Susan’s mother had abandoned her? I wanted more information on the Foundling Hospital and turned to Wikipedia. The article supplied me with the history of this institution. One part caught my attention:

The Committee of Inquiry based its acceptance of the child on:

The previous good character and present necessity of the mother.
The father of the child had deserted both mother and child.
The reception of the child would replace the mother in the course of virtue and in the way of an honest livelihood.

At that time, illegitimacy carried a deep stigma, especially for the mother but also for the child. All the children at the Foundling Hospital were those of unmarried women. They were all first children of their mothers.

This statement confirmed my suspicion. Her mother had abandoned Susan. My next question was “Why did her mother do this”?

I decided to find Susan’s mother. I began my search in the 1881 England Census. I was looking for an unmarried woman living in Kent County, England. Here are the top three results of that search:

As you will notice, Phoebe Oldham is the only unmarried woman on the search results. The document shows Phoebe to be 32 years old. She worked as a housemaid for a retired merchant in Bromley, Kent, England.

I continued my search for Phoebe in the England censuses before and after 1881. It became a challenge as her age varied +/- ten years. Another factor was that her birthplace changed as shown below:

1861 America, British Subject (meaning Canada)
1871 America, British Subject (meaning Canada)
1881 Quebec, Canada
1891 Plumstead, Kent, England
1901 Kent, England

I attribute these discrepancies to the person who answered the census questions. I have to assume that her employer guessed at her age, not caring if it was accurate or not.

In fact, the only two census documents that I found to be the most authentic were for 1851 and 1911. The enumerator received information first-hand from Phoebe or from her parents. There was no guessing involved.

The 1911 England Census shows Phoebe, aged 70, working as a cook for a widow in London. Her birthplace listed as Perth, Australia.

In 1851, Phoebe and her family were living in Charlton, Kent, England.

As you can see, it was very hard to decipher the birthplace on this document.

I tried inverting the colors to see if I could read it better. If you look close, the first word looks to be Sydney. Could this be Sydney, Austalia?

Phoebe died in 1923 at age 84. Through all those years, she never married.

I reviewed the censuses again. I wondered if Phoebe’s career took precedence over having a husband and children. Could it be that she liked the security of working for a wealthy family? I am sure they paid a decent wage. She did not have to worry about living in a squalid little room in the city. She did not have to wonder if her husband would earn enough money to feed her and the children.

In April of 1881, there were three brothers living at 88 Masons Hill:

William McAndrew (58 years old) unmarried, retired merchant
James C McAndrew (53 years old) married, merchant in New York
John McAndrew (42 years old) unmarried, merchant

Phoebe would have become pregnant at the beginning of 1881. Enumeration of the census occurred on April 3, 1881. In the last quarter of 1881, Phoebe gave birth to her daughter.

Could one of these wealthy men be Susan’s father? Could it be that this gentleman refused to marry Phoebe because of her lowly status as a housemaid? Was he already married and demand that she get rid of the baby.

The Foundling Hospital considered an “accidental” pregnancy to be a lapse in judgment. Giving up the infant was Phoebe’s way of starting anew, erasing the fact that she gave birth.

But there is sadness for both Susan and Phoebe. Susan grew up not knowing a mother’s love. Phoebe grew old not knowing the love of her only daughter.

Here are the details I have collected on Phoebe’s family:

John Oldham, father, born in 1809 St Marys, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England. He died in 1859 Plumstead, Kent, England.

John was a gunner in the Royal Artillery, 10th Battalion.

Isabella (Unknown), mother, born in 1809, Scotland. Year of birth may be incorrect.

There is an unverified document showing Isabella died in 1855.

Sarah Oldham, sister, born in 1834 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Amelia Oldham, sister, born in 1836 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Matthew Oldham, John’s father, born in 1779 St Mary’s, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England.

Matthew was a foot soldier with the 65th Regiment. He enlisted in 1811 and discharged in 1819.

John married Eliza Ann (Head) Bates, widow, in 1857 Plumstead, Kent, England.

John Head is Eliza’s father.

Are you related to this side of the Oldham family? If so, please contact me. My email is dlwakenight@yahoo.com or you can message me on The Genealogy Insider’s Facebook page.