In response to our recent post about wet-nurses and the Bureau du Direction des Nourrices, we have received a fascinating letter from our Dear Reader, Madame B, which we give here in full, with many thanks:
I can't tell you how much I enjoy receiving your emails and reading your articles. They are always so interesting and informative and some have led me to discover some fascinating information about my French ancestors.
I thought you might be interested to hear about what I have discovered about my ancestors’ interactions with nourrices.
My great, great, great grandfather François P……. was an "enfant trouvé"- abandoned as a one day old baby in the tour of the Hospice de Grasse in April 1811. As you know the tour was a round, wooden, cylindrical turntable built into the wall of the hospice and was specifically designed so that mothers could leave their unwanted babies anonymously in the care of the hospice. Francois’s birth record gives a very detailed description of what he was dressed in: “the child was swaddled in an old piece of black material, an old scrap of brown material, a shirt, an Indian bodice, olive coloured with a leafy/flowery design ....... there was no mark on his body to identify him by- amongst his clothes was found a note carrying these words "the child was born on the second April 1811 - not baptised".
A few days later, according to the Departmental records, he was placed with a nourrice in the commune of Saint Pierre, Alpes de Haute Provence. François appears to have stayed in Saint Pierre for most of his life. After the death of his first wife he married my great, great, great grandmother Marie H…... You can imagine how surprised I was to discover that she too was an abandoned child from Grasse. She had been abandoned when she was 6 and was placed with a nourrice in Aiglun. I have read that the wet-nurses were only paid to look after the child until they were twelve years old - after that I would imagine the child was expected to work to pay for their keep. Indeed one of the archived documents shows the payments (approximately 50 francs per year) that were made to Marie's nourrice until she was twelve years old.
Your article says that certain places were considered to "produce women excellent for the occupation". Saint Pierre certainly seems to have been one of these places. I had read that abandonment of babies was commonplace in the 1800's and was considered preferable to infanticide. However the 1846 census of Saint Pierre was a revelation to me. Of the 199 residents in this tiny commune a QUARTER of them are recorded as being enfant trouvé/enfant abandoné/ enfant naturel etc. Although none of the women are described as nourrices, that is clearly what they were - with some of them looking after large numbers of abandoned children. In this census, the household headed by Joseph Blanc and his wife has five foundling children with them originating from the hospices of Grasse, Draguignan, Toulon and Marseille, aged 14, 13, 7, 3 and 5 months) . They are all called Blanc - it is not because they are living with Joseph Blanc but because of their status. ALL of the enfants trouvés of Saint Pierre are referred to as "Blanc" which, as well as meaning white can also mean "blank" or "nothing" (according to my wonderful Collins Robert French dictionary).
Many of the official records relating to François and Marie and their children state their names as Blanc - which as you can imagine complicated my research given that I was looking for the name P…….! What has also struck me is the distinct possibility that the many people who today carry the name BLANC may very well have an ancestor who was abandoned as a child as my ancestors were.
François and Marie had two boys and two girls (one of them being my great-great-grandmother Marie Marguerite P…..) The boys died in infancy and their mother died young leaving François and his two young daughters. By the age of thirteen, my 2 x great-grandmother and her sister were no longer living with their father - I think they had moved on to find work. Indeed at the age of fifteen Marie Marguerite was working as a domestique in Draguignan.
Unfortunately, she fell pregnant at seventeen and removed herself to Toulon to give birth to my great-grandfather Octave. She was unmarried and destitute and after nursing Octave for 10 days she gave her baby up to the care of the Hospice of Toulon. According to his abandonment record Octave was placed with a wet-nurse called Josephine Maurin in Puget Rostang, Alpes Maritimes. I have a document which details the sets of clothes that were given to Josephine for Octave and the cost of these outfits. There is also a note that his first baby clothes were those that had been provided for another child who had died shortly after being placed with Josephine. What a sad contrast to the brand new clothes I lovingly dressed my new- born babies in. Octave remained with Josephine until the payments from the state ceased. Aged almost thirteen (and still under the jurisdiction of the State until the age of 21) he was sent back to Toulon. His record shows his various placements from ages twelve to twenty-one.
Before I started researching my French family three years ago, all of this (very much abbreviated) history was completely unknown to my family. My mother knew nothing of Octave's past, or of the mother and family he had never known. We did know that he became Deputy Mayor of Hyeres les Salins and was a much respected figure in the community - a huge achievement for someone with such a disadvantaged youth. Thanks to articles like yours I have been inspired to delve into my ancestors’ fascinating and difficult lives and have found so much more than I ever dreamed was possible. There are still many more mysteries and I am slowly trying to unravel them.
Once again, thank you for such wonderful articles. I look forward to reading many more and maybe they will help solve my remaining mysteries!
Once again, thank you very much, Madame B!
©2013 Anne Morddel