The first number of The Foundling Hospital for Wit (FHW) hit the streets of London in 1743 (when Alexander Pope’s final version of The Dunciad came out) and wound up with its sixth instalment in 1749 (the year in which Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones championed foundlings). This satirical miscellany was a response to the end of Walpole’s twenty-two years in power as Britain’s first de facto prime minister.
The title of this miscellany is a satiric nod to London’s first Foundling Hospital which opened its doors to abandoned children in 1741. Captain Thomas Coram had campaigned for seventeen years until George II signed the Royal Charter which gave the go-ahead to build a “Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.” The Foundling Hospital for Wit, as its title elaborated, was “INTENDED For the Reception and Preservation of such Brats of Wit and Humour, whose Parents chuse to Drop them. CONTAINING All the Satires, Odes, Ballads, Epigrams, &c. that have been wrote since the Change of the Ministry, many of which have never before been Printed.”
The Foundling Hospital for Wit took in opposition offspring which no-one else wanted or dared to print. Its mission statement — a mock “Royal Charter of Apollo and the Muses” — declared that no more would “great Numbers of Mental Infants [be] daily exposed to Destruction.” It promised to put an end to the “frequent Murders committed on these beautiful Infants by the inhuman Custom of exposing them to perish and starve in the common News Papers, or to be bury’d and suffocated in Dunghil[l]s of Trash in the Monthly Magazines” (FHW 1: i-ii).
The publisher of the first Foundling Hospital for Wit reads G. Lion near Ludgate while the second number names J. Lyon in Ludgate-Street. After a three-year hiatus, it returned under the proprietorship of W. Webb. David Foxon considers the possibility that Webb is fictitious, but Lion and Lyon may have been a screen for Webb who gets 307 hits as publisher on the English Short-Title Catalogue. Webb published Horace Walpole’s satiric catechism, “THE LESSONS for the DAY, Being the First and Second Chapters of the Book of PREFERMENT,” separately in 1742 which then appeared at the end of the first Foundling volume the following year (FHW 1: 56-60). Webb also published Sir Charles Hanbury Williams’ Old Coachman, a new Ballad separately in 1742, then included it in The New Ministry, before reprinting it in The Foundling Hospital for Wit (FHW 1: 6).
The Foundling Hospital for Wit was ushered in by its pseudonymous editor Samuel Silence who changed to Timothy Silence for the remaining numbers. The attribution to Hanbury Williams apparently derives from an anonymous notation in the British Library copy of the 1763 reprint of The Foundling Hospital for Wit (1487.ff.14(1)). If we can’t say for certain that Hanbury Williams was the editor, we do know that he was one of its most frequent contributors.
The Foundling Hospital for Wit nailed its political colours to the mast early on. The second item in the first number (following a poem about Henry Fielding’s role for Kitty Clive as “bawd or belle”) is a satiric Epitaph upon the Political Memory of W— P— E— of B—, who died to Fame on July 15, 1742. The Foundling Hospital for Wit jeered at William Pulteney’s decision to accept the offer of a seat in the House of Lords as the Earl of Bath rather than lead a new government, thereby dashing the hopes of the Whig patriot opposition. If Pulteney was out in 1742, a new minister was in: “An EPISTLE to WILLIAM PITT” heaps praise on the great commoner and future war minister.
Subject matter took a turn for the macabre in the final volume with “An Account of the famous Sieur Rocquet, Surgeon; just arrived from Paris” which advertises various forms of amputation, glass eyes, false teeth, and artificial breasts (FHW 6: 81-83). Webb reprinted three of the Foundling numbers in 1763 and 1764 which evidently made an impression on John Almon who launched a six-volume series, The New Foundling Hospital for Wit, in 1768 which ran until 1773.
Professor Donald W. Nichol, Memorial University, Newfoundland