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Orphans of Empire: The fate of London’s foundlings, by Helen Berry

02 August 2019

The tale of these lost and rescued infants can’t fail to touch us, says John Pridmore

The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram. Handel’s Messiah was performed annually here as a benefit concert. From the book reviewed

The Chapel in the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram. Handel’s Messiah was performed annually here as a benefit concert. From the bo...

HELEN BERRY tells us that Thomas Coram, the founder of the London Foundling Hospital, was a man “of few polite manners”. But what he lacked in polish he made up for in purpose, in an inflexible determination to get things done. The London Foundling Hospital, which he established, opened its doors to orphaned and abandoned children on 25 March 1741. It had taken him the best part of 18 years to see his “darling project”, as he called it, realised.

Coram was addressing a scandal that it took a Hogarth to depict. Most citizens of 18th-century London lived in conditions of unspeakable squalor and filth. Berry describes how “whole families bedded down for the night in haylofts, stables, reeking middens or dunghills.” Children born into such destitution were lucky to survive. Many were simply left to perish in the gutter.

The focus of this fascinating study is not on Coram himself, extraordinary as his story is, but on the foundlings sheltered by his hospital, and what became of them. Berry has two primary sources for her research.The first is the Foundling Hospital Archive, whose shelf space, she calculates, is equivalent in length to 17 double-decker buses. The second is a single unpublished autobiography. Of the many thousands of children entrusted to the hospital, George King is unique in having recorded his own life-story. He was admitted to the hospital in November 1787. On leaving it, he was apprenticed to a confectioner (“every child’s dream”). Eventually, he went to sea, and saw action at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Baby George will have been surrendered to the hospital under the gaze of posh, paying visitors who, as on every admission day, would come to watch the spectacle. A mother would often leave some personal token with the child, whom almost certainly she would never see again. The statistics are chilling. Two-thirds of the more than 18,000 babies admitted to the Foundling Hospital in the 18th century died in infancy.

Scholarly books commonly conclude with a page or two of acknowledgements. These we often skim — if not skip. Berry’s acknowledgements are not to be overlooked in this way. Her study is an exemplary piece of objective historical research into the fate of London’s foundlings, and almost to the last she properly keeps her owns feelings about them to herself. But in these closing pages she speaks from the heart. She confesses just how profoundly she was affected by the traces left of these forlorn infants of whom we know so little.

We, too, are deeply touched by their heartbreaking stories, and like Berry, we reach out across the centuries to them.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Orphans of Empire: The fate of London’s foundlings
Helen Berry
Oxford University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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