Histories of Care in the Cadbury Library Special Collections

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by Kate Gibson, University of Manchester

A letter from Ann Ambler to Thomasin Fenton, June 1778, from the Cadbury Library manuscript archive
Cadbury Research Library, MS206/2/22, Ann Ambler to Thomasin Fenton, 20 June 1778

Support from BECC and BSECS allowed me to visit the Cadbury Library to examine a small collection of 31 letters, written by gentry woman Ann Ambler. Revealing her care of siblings Isabella and Thomasin Ibbetson, the letters provide new insight into fostering in the eighteenth century. The girls were orphaned when they were quite young, and Ann offered to provide parental advice, supervision and a home whilst they were in London finishing their genteel education. Ann fostered the girls separately for several years, Isabella from the age of 15, and Thomasin from 12 to 15.  

Why did Ann Ambler offer to foster the Ibbetsons? The first motivation was kinship. Many historians have noted that kinship carried strong instrumental and affective obligations, such as visiting, sending gifts or giving advice. Fostering a child was also a way to express service towards relatives, and provided the satisfaction of contributing to the collective. Ann Ambler expressed herself only too pleased to be able to care for the children of her cousin Lady Ibbetson, who had died when Thomasin was a baby. Ann wrote to Isabella, who had now married and become Mrs Cole, that she was sure that Thomasin’s ‘sweet temper…  wou’d engage ye regard & affection of any one, but mine more particularly from ye very strong resemblance she bears of my dear Mrs Cole [Isabella]. Her Eyes revived strongly ye Memory of Lady Ibbetson… Another Ibbetson still remains, & I cannot see any of that name… without offering all ye assistance in my power to give.’[1]  

Ann also gained considerable pleasure and satisfaction from being useful and playing an active role in young people’s lives. Ann had two children of her own, but both had died young, and so fostering provided an outlet for her maternal emotions and skills. When she offered to foster Thomasin, she wrote to Isabella ‘I am now by Age & Indolence much less fit for such a Task… but we are not born for ourselves only, & fain while I live wou’d I do what little good I can.’[2] Being loved was also of great satisfaction. Ann stated that one affectionate letter from Thomasin ‘makes me happy, for amongst ye manifold blessing I enjoy, ye warm affection of those I truly love, will ever be number’d wth ye greatest as a large addition to my share of happiness’.[3]

Ann’s relationship with Thomasin and Isabella was a hugely positive one for both parties. They continued to exchange letters long after the girls had left her care, expressing considerable affection for each other, and sending gifts. When Thomasin got married and had a baby, one of the first visits she made with her young family was to stay with the Amblers. Ann saw herself explicitly as a parent, a role which continued across a child’s lifetime. When Thomasin got married, Ann wrote her a letter full of maternal advice. She hoped she ‘will pardon ye sincerity of an old Friend who always keeps your happiness in view… I have been so long accustomed to think of you as my Child, that I find it difficult to lay aside ye Parent & to give up ye pleasing liberty that Character gave me whenever I can exert it, tho but in ye smallest degree for your benefit.’[4]

Many studies of fostering emphasise that children were taken in as a last resort: an emergency response to parental crisis or death. The Ambler letters suggest that some foster parents saw it as a conscious, deliberate choice that had a positive effect on their own life. Fostering could allow individuals to satisfy obligations towards their kin, provide company and pleasure, and the fulfilment of contributing to a child’s success. Although my wider project looks at foster families from across the socio-economic scale, the particular examples I’ve talked about today shift our understanding of how we think about elite women. The concept of the life cycle has been seen as very important to women’s lives, through marriage, parenthood and widowhood, but fostering allowed women to maintain parental responsibility and influence in what was essentially a pro-natalist society, long into middle and older age. We still do not have enough research on childlessness, and the Amblers and other examples from the wider project suggest that fostering and adoption were crucial in allowing childless or bereaved couples to create a family, partly because they wanted to experience the joys and anxieties of parenthood. 

[1] MS206/3/1, Ann Ambler, Queen Square, to Mrs Cole, 4 April 1769  

[2] MS206/3/1, Ann Ambler, Queen Square, to Mrs Cole, 4 April 1769 

[3] MS206/2/11, Ann Ambler, Queen Square to Miss Ibbetson, 9 February 1775 

[4] MS206/2/22, Ann Ambler, Queen Square, to Mrs Thomasin Fenton, 20 June 1778 

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