A foundling in Gent


A Glimpse of Life in a Belgian City in 18201

"The past is a foreign country: they did things differently there." -L.P.Hartley - 1953

Revised January 18, 2001. Your comments and suggestions would be appreciated.

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   As we search for our ancestors we often find that, as we go further back, these once vibrant human beings seem to fade into mere names and dates. If we are lucky, family tradition may have passed along a story or two about them for a few generations but that is all that is remembered of those people as they slowly recede into the mists of time.
   However, occasionally we may stumble on a story that suddenly illuminates what it must have been like to live 'way back then'. A clerk at a Belgian city's archive accidentally found an unusual birth certificate while searching for documents related to the ancestors of Marcel Blanchaer. This certificate written in Flemish in 1820 was translated by Marc Verschooris2 and modified slightly in the hope of making it more comprehensible by English speakers of Belgian descent, separated as we are by time, distance and culture from the life of our long dead ancestors.

 The Birth Certificate of Joanna Francesca Bauwens - February 20th, 1820
-An Abandoned Infant -

- Below is a rough translation of the original birth certificate in Flemish -

  In Gent at 16:15 (4:15 p.m.) there appeared before me Francies Verhegghen, head of the Civil Registration: Joanne Kints, 55 years old, from the Home for Foundlings, who declared she had found yesterday at 15:30, in the "rolleken" of the Foundling Home in St. Jans Hospital a child of the female sex, about 3 months old. The child shown to us was dressed in a little linen shirt and a satin dress with white and purple stripes, a red-colored cotton scarf with white flowers, a purple cotton cap and a white undercap of piqué3. She was wrapped in a white cotton bundle inside a purple-coloured cotton covering with red and white flowers. We found a short note attached to the child in Flemish that said: "Joanna Francisca Bauwens age fourteen weeks last Monday".

We registered this child as Joanna Francisca Bauwens. This official report [was prepared] in presence of Angelus Vlaemynck, 54 years-old, employee at the (sugar) refinery and Jan Francies Peelman, 33 years old, police officer, living respectively in Saint Jansdreef and Brabantdam (streets). After this certificate had been read aloud, Joanne Kints declared she couldn't write; [so] the witnesses signed with me.
  Signed: JF Peelman A. Vlaemynck F. Verhegghen 

Explication of the Birth certificate

  The St.Jan's Foundling Home existed in Gent from 1820 to 1863. In the "Register der Vondelingen" there is a history of 7181 children being abandonned there. Most of their histories have only a few lines covering a couple of days or weeks. This was because 75% of the children that were brought into St.Jan's died within a very short time after there arrival. About 10% of the foundlings were left by maids and servants made pregnant by their masters. If the child was abandonned without a name it was named at St.Jan's according to the alphabet.
  This particular child, Joanna Francesca, was already named when it was put into 'Het Rolleken' (diminutive of "rolle" = a little tub; see below). All its clothes are carefully described in the certificate and a short note was attached to the child. Why put these seemingly trivial details in the certificate? In 1794 the French conquered Belgium and Napoleon decided that every town or village was to install a 'rolleken' (Flemish) or, in the French of that time, 'un tour'4. A 'rolleken' looked like a round wash tub that could be turned on a vertical spindle and was fitted into a wall so that the open side of the rolle normally was open on the outside of the building. The child to be abandoned was put into the 'rolle' and the person who left it turned the rolle so that the child appeared on the inside of the building and a rang a bell on the inside. A nun, often a noviciate, would then take the child to the municipal offices to have it registered.Sometimes a piece of a torn playing card was left with the foundling. 5 If the mother decided later to reclaim her child she had to show the other matching piece of the playing card and also had to describe exactly how her baby had been dressed when she had left it in the rolle! That is why all the clothes were described in detail in the birth certificate. Sometimes a note was left with the child telling the mother's hope to retrieve her child later.

Why did Napoleon order installation of such 'rollekens'? He called these foundlings 'les enfants de la patrie' and wished to make them soldiers and nurses for his European campaigns! In Gent the rolle was installed at the rear of Saint Johns' Church. It opened on the 1st of February 1820 and the first child was brought in one day later! He was called 'Ambrosius the First'! The last child was Eleonora Ynt who was brought on the 5th of June 1863.

So, who abandoned this child, Joanna Bauwens? Did her mother give Joanna her own family name or that of the father? Was she poor and felt unable to take care of her child in a cold February? We'll never know: Joanna died 6 days later on February 26th, 1820 (see note in Frenchßß below):

"Le 18 février 1820, acte reçu par la Commission des Hospices Civils de la ville de Gand, Jeanne Françoise Bauwens, trouvée à Gand le 18 février 1820 à 3 àheure de relevée dans le tour, à l'établissement des enfants trouvés. Le dit enfant paraisant agé de 3 mois vetu d'une chemise de toile, une camisole de satin à lignes blanches et pourpre un mouchoir de coton rouge à fleurs blanches un bonnet de coton pourpre et une béguin de piquet emmaillotés dans un lange de laine blanche et un de coton pourpre à fleurs rouges et blanches.
L'enfant est décédé le 26 février 1820."

1A variation of this story is in press in the magazine: "Belgian Laces" <bbrindle@netusa1.net>
Marc Verschooris <m.verschooris@mercator-hs.be>
piqué: cloth with a repeating pattern
4Photo of "un tour" on display at the Musée des Augustines de l'Hôtel-Dieu de Québec in Québec city. Provided by Sister Nicole Perron, A.m.j, directrice du musée.
5"Five Centuries of Welfare in Gent" published by OCMW, Gent 1999.


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