Search tips
Search criteria 


Logo of jrsocmedLink to Publisher's site
J R Soc Med. 2004 January; 97(1): 37–38.
PMCID: PMC1079270

Child adoption in the seventeenth century: vignettes from Defoe and Pepys

A N Williams, MSc MRCP

In the seventeenth century, between a quarter and one-third of children died in the first year of life and only half reached the age of fifteen. Children born out of wedlock were at even higher risk, partly through infanticide. Indeed, in 1624 Parliament passed an Act ‘to prevent the murthering of bastard children’.2 Many were consigned to the care of a parish, which resented the burden and neglected them. Others went to paid carers; there was no formal system for child adoption, and a mother often made secret arrangements to have the child taken off her hands. In this article I draw attention to two vignettes from the writings of Daniel Defoe (1661–1731) and Samuel Pepys (1633–1703).


Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders,3 though written in 1722, is set in the year 1683. The eponymous heroine looks back on a colourful life including five marriages, incest and bigamy, a career as thief and whore, imprisonment, reprieve from a death sentence and ultimate repentance. Early in the story, a pregnant Moll is forced to consider adoption for her unborn child since she is about to marry a man who is not the father and knows nothing of the pregnancy. She is in lodgings and a local midwife is sent for. She describes what happened in the first person:

‘This grave matron had several sorts of practice, and this was one particular, that if a child was born, though not in her house (for she had the occasion to be called to many private labours) she had people at hand, who for a piece of money would take the child off their hands, and off from the hands of the parish too: and those children, as she said, were honestly provided for and taken care of. What should become of them all, considering so many, as by her account she was concerned with, I cannot conceive... But she was full of this argument, that she saved the life of many an innocent lamb, as she called them, which would otherwise perhaps be murdered: and of many women, who made desperate by the misfortune, would otherwise be tempted to destroy their children, and bring themselves to the gallows. I granted her that this was true, and a very commendable thing, provided the poor children fell into good hands afterwards, and were not abused, starved and neglected by the nurses that bred them up. She answered, that she always took care of that, and had no nurses in her business but what were very good, honest people, and such as might be depended upon.’

Moll reluctantly has her child adopted and pays £5 per year for his upbringing. We hear nothing more of the child in the book although later Moll turns to crime partly to pay the £5 annual fee.


In his diary4 Samuel Pepys relates the difficulties his late brother Tom had in dealing with his infant daughter Elizabeth, fathered outside marriage. In the following entry (6 April 1664) Tom is referred to as ‘John Taylor’, in keeping with his occupation:

‘Tom’s first plott was to go on the other side the water and give a beggar woman something to take the child. They did once go, but did nothing, J. Noble saying that seven years hence the mother might come to demand the child and force him to produce it, or to be suspected of murder. Then I think it was that they consulted, and got one Cave, a poor pensioner in St. Bride’s parish to take it, giving him L5 [£5] he thereby promising to keepe it for ever without more charge to them. The parish hereupon indite the man Cave for bringing this child upon the parish, and by Sir Richard Browne he is sent to the Counter [prison]...

Cave being released, demands L5 more to secure my brother for ever against the child; and he was forced to give it him and took bond of Cave in L100 made at a scrivener’s, one Hudson, I think, in the Old Bayly, to secure John Taylor, and his assigns, &c. (in consideration of L10 paid him), from all trouble, or charge of meat, drink, clothes, and breeding of Elizabeth Taylor; and it seems, in the doing of it.’

Tom’s daughter is believed to have died within the year.


These accounts by Defoe and Pepys indicate that the Act of 1624 had at least sensitized the public to the fate of illegitimate children, who might be killed by their mothers or their ‘carers’, or otherwise perish from neglect. Infanticide carried a capital sentence, and a famous case was that of Anne Green, hanged in 1651 for the murder of her newborn son. Anne Green was fortunate enough to have been cut down from the gallows and resuscitated.5 At her subsequent retrial, Dr Thomas Willis and Sir William Petty testified that the child had been stillborn, and she was acquitted.acquitted.

Figure 1
The execution and resuscitation of Anne Green (contemporary print, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford)

Defoe’s advocacy for the abandoned child went beyond the character of Moll Flanders. In the introduction to Augusta Triumphans (1728) entitled ‘A proposal to Prevent Murder, Dishonour and Other Abuses, by Erecting an Hospital for Foundlings’, he wrote:

‘Those who cannot be so hard-hearted to murder their own offspring themselves, take a slower, tho’ as sure a way, and get it done by others, by dropping their children, and leaving them to be starved by parish nurses.’6

This plea went unanswered at the time, but eleven years later Thomas Coram was to establish his hospital for foundlings.7 Legal arrangements for child adoption, despite informal arrangements from the time of Moses or earlier, were not introduced in the UK until after World War I, with the Adoption of Children Act 1926.


I thank Dr Margaret Holloway for her comments.


1. Waller M. 1700: Scenes from London Life. London: Hodder, 2000: 62
2. Hoffer PC, Hull NEH. Murdering Mothers: Infanticide in England and New England 1558–1803. New York: New York University Press, 1981
3. Defoe D. Moll Flanders. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994
4. Bright M., ed. Diary of Samuel Pepys, 6 April 1664. Wheatley: Project Gutenberg e-text
5. Hughes JT. Miraculous deliverance of Anne Green: an Oxford case of resuscitation in the seventeenth century. BMJ 1982;285: 1792–3 [PMC free article] [PubMed]
6. Defoe D. Augusta Triumphans (1728). Cited in Ref. 1
7. Still GF. The History of Paediatrics. London: Oxford University Press, 1931: 349

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press