Deciphering Dutch Foundling Surnames

If nowadays a foundling is found it usually hits the newspapers because it is a rare event. However, in the days of our ancestors abandoning a child was unfortunately far more common. In a time when contraception was virtually unheard of and abstinence was thought to be bad for your health and soul, couples would get children whether they could afford to care for them or not. There were also many unmarried women who got pregnant either through carelessness in love or through prostitution.

Children Of  Misery

There were not many options for parents of an unwanted child. Sometimes family would take care of the little one until times improved and the parents could care for the child themselves. However, in the case of illegitimate children this was often not an option. In order for the young mother and her family to keep up her reputation, the baby had to "disappear". Some babies were handed over to a so-called engeltjesmaker (angel maker). This person, usually a woman or midwife, would simply take the child and let the poor thing die for a small fee. The parents would receive a small insurance payment for the deceased child that would often be enough to feed the family for a couple of months. Sometimes a midwife would promise the parents to care for the child, let it die and then keep the insurance payment herself! Although angel making did happen, it was a crime and was certainly not common practice.

A more humane and practical option was to simply abandon the child at a church or other public place where it could be found and cared for. In the case of legitimate children, the parents would sometimes add a note stating the name they wanted the child to have and the intention to take it back in the future when they could care for it themselves.

In rare cases foundling swindle was practiced (such as in Maastricht in the 19th century). In this case, the parents would officially abandon the child leaving it at the care of a foundling home. The foundling home would than put the child in the care of a foster parent, which was in fact the biological father or mother, at the expense of the State. This way families could keep the child they could not afford to care for otherwise.

Abandoned children had to be given a family name. Since the child had no known family, it was usually the finder or the clerk that had to come up with one. This has resulted in very particular foundling name categories: finder name, legal state, finding place, finding time, weather conditions, child features, systematic names, and random names.

Finder Name

Many foundlings ended up with the family name of the finder. In this case, the name reveals nothing about the child being a foundling. This was a blessing for the child since it would get a normal name like Peters or Smid. However, this was only allowed if the finder officially adopted the child as its own. If they did not, the child had to get a new non-existing name. The name had to be new to prevent that any legal relationship with any existing family was accidentally suggested.

Legal State

Sometimes foundlings were given a family name by the clerk that clearly stated this legal state. Common names in this category are Vondeling (foundling), Verlaeten (abandoned), and Bijstand (welfare). With a name like that, it would have been impossible for the child to hide his or her background. Nowadays this is not really a problem, but in the past being a foundling was something to be ashamed off since it suggested that you were in fact an illegitimate child (even if this was actually not the case).

Finding Place

A very common type of name was one that described the place where the child had been found. This could be the name of the street like Baan (from Baangracht) or Bijdam (near the Dam). Sometimes it refers to a certain tavern or shop such as van den Eyngel (at the Angel's), van den Aep (at the Monkey's).Very often it simply describes the physical spot as in Stoep (sidewalk), Trap (stairs), Gragt (canal) and Mand (basket).

Finding Time

The time of finding is also a beloved theme to name foundlings. It can refer to the time of day such as in van Zeven (at seven), Maenlicht (moonlight) or Sluytmans (at closing time), the day of the week as in Maendag (Monday) or the time of the year as in Sprokkel (after sprokkelmaand meaning wood gathering month, which is February), Winters (at winter) or Paesdag (Easter day). In the Catholic southern Netherlands, the name of the day's saint is also often used resulting in names like Borro (aft St. Borromeus).

Weather Conditions

Weather conditions often inspired the clerk to odd names such as Droog (dry), Nevel (fog), Regenplas (puddle) and Groenegras (green grass). Although the child itself may not have been very happy with such a strange name, to the genealogist it is a nice hint at the conditions under which the child was abandoned.

Child Features

Sometimes the very characteristics of the child or its clothing lead to humorous or poetic names like Den Schreeuwer (the screamer), Dickbol (big head), Satijn (satin, after the cloth it was found in), and Bleckaert (naked). These provide also nice little details about a foundling ancestor.

Systematic Names

Some churches and municipalities had a system for naming foundlings. They would for example follow the order of the letters of the alphabet and restrict themselves to plant names resulting in names like Maria Meijbloem (may flower) and Pauline Pruymboom (prune tree).

Random Names

Unfortunately, for many foundlings the clerk did not always take name giving seriously and came up with ridiculous random names. In 1789 during the French occupation, one clerk in Leuven took this idea to an absurd extreme. He expressed his feelings about the occupation in sentences and gave each foundling the next word of the sentence as a name. Two series of names he gave are:

Komtons (come us), Helpen (help/save), Uytden (from the), Slaever (slave), Nije (ry), Vande (of the), Booze (evil), Tyran (tyrant).

Enfin (anyway), Alles (everything), Gaetoem (will be), Zeep (destroyed, also meaning soap), Ende (and the), Maegere (skinny), Ratten (rats), Worden (become), Vet (fat), Metge (with), Stolen (stolen), Goed (goods), Zoodat (so that), Stelen (stealing), Rooven (robbing), Plunderen (plundering), Geene (no), Zonde (sin), Meer (anymore), Enis (is), Helaes (alas!), Onder (under), Watti (what ty), Rannen (rants), Leven (live), Wij (we).

Most individual names resulting from this odd strategy are strange or nonsense but as a sentence they read: "Come, save us from the slavery from the evil tyrant." and "Anyway, everything will be destroyed and the skinny rats become fat with stolen goods, so that stealing, robbing and plundering is no sin anymore. Alas! Under what tyrants do we live!"