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Genealogy - Finding a Foundling

If like me you follow genealogy content on social media, you probably saw this post pop up from National Records of Scotland, the organisation behind Scotland's People.


It shows the recording of four foundlings in 1785 and 1786, all of whom were given the surname "Glasgow" in recognition of where they were found. Dougal Glasgow, found in W Laurie's Close on 19 November 1785, James Glasgow, found in John Buchanan's on the High Street on 20 December 1785, Abraham Glasgow, found at Scott and Monteith - presumably a business - on 18 April 1786 and Anabella Glasgow, found in a writer's office (writer is a Scottish term for a lawyer) on 31st May 1786.


Unlike other parts of the UK where Foundling Hospitals existed as a way for desperate mothers to hand over their babies to the authorities, Glaswegian mothers had few options for the care of their newborn. Abandoning their baby in a public place, hoping they would be cared for by charity, was presumably their best option in an age before the welfare state or even poorhouses/workhouses.


Foundling Genealogy


These four children pose a real head-scratcher from a genealogical point of view. We don't know when any of them were born, just the day they were found. It's easy to assume that they were hours or maybe days old, but this may not be the case. Scottish civil registration of deaths, births and marriages was decades in the future, and we have no way of telling who the mothers and fathers of these children were.


Even trying to trace what happened to these children later in life causes difficulties. Dougal, Anabella and James' baptisms are recorded on sites like FindMyPast and Ancestry, but this information is taken from the original Scotland''s People image. Records from the late 18th and early 19th century are patchy, and not all have survived. No further records could be confirmed with certainty for any of the four foundlings. There are some tempting nuggets which could be linked to one of the four foundlings, such as the town of Glasgow, Missouri which is named after Glasgow merchant James Glasgow, born in the right place at the right time. But James is one of the most common Scottish given names, and is it really plausible that a child born into such poor circumstances could cross the Atlantic and have a successful career as a merchant?


Similarly, there are lots of records for an Abraham Glasgow, around the right age, on Post Office directories in Glasgow, and marrying and having children 300 miles south in Birmingham. Might be "our" Abraham, might be another Abraham entirely. It's really tempting to accept hints or just assume that you have the right person but any experienced genealogist will know that this is dangerous. We don't know if Abraham, James, Anabella and Dougal even survived infancy. They may have been taken in by another family and changed their surname. Mothers may have reclaimed their children, and started using their original names. We just don't know.


DNA Tests and Foundling Genealogy


So would DNA tests from companies like Ancestry or My Heritage give us answers if we suspect that one of our ancestors was a foundling? Well, yes and no. DNA has been used to great effect by people who were adopted, or who suspected their father or grandfather was not the person named on the birth certificate.


Commercial DNA kits are autosomal, which means they look at all of your DNA, from both your mother's and father's side. As you go back through the generations you have less DNA from each ancestor - 50% from each parent, 25% (on average) from each grandparent, 12.5% from each great grandparent and so on. 1786 is a long time ago - if we assume on average 30 years per generation, people born around 1780 might be seven or eight generations back. Due to the way DNA is inherited, it's possible that you haven't inherited any DNA at all from someone born so long ago, even if they are your direct ancestor.


The only option would be a Y-DNA test, which only men can take. Y-DNA is a different sort of test, which can look much further back along the male line. A man taking a Y-DNA test in 2023 might be able to establish a link back to Dougal, James or Abraham, but obviously not to Anabella. But again, this all assumes that the three baby boys survived infancy, grew up, had male children, their male children had sons and so on. It's a long shot.


Help With Genealogy


This is the sort of genealogical puzzle which genealogists love getting their teeth into. I can help suggest other avenues for exploration, stop you falling into the research traps which are so tempting, and fill in the context for the historical period your ancestor was born into - even if they were not a foundling. Get in touch and we'll discuss how we can help.

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