CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 11 . . . .February 4, 2005
"Abandoned babies - called foundlings - had been a problem for many years, especially in the cities - not just in England, but all over Europe. Rome, Venice, Amsterdam and Paris all had homes for foundlings, some dating back as far as the Middle Ages.
But in London, in the early 1700s, there was no safe refuge for abandoned babies. The Parish Council was obligated by law to accept destitute children. (A parish was the neighbourhood served by a church; each parish had a council that dealt with social problems.) But parish nurses were considered by many to be "killing nurses." It was said that "no child ever came out of their hands alive." In those days nurses were not medically trained, and many were ignorant and irresponsible.
At this same period, though, a great many London women were having babies they could not or would not support. It was a time when more people were crowding into the big city than ever before, looking for work and hoping to find a better life than in the village or on the farm. Many of the young men became soldiers or apprentices, and many of the young women were servants in big houses owned by wealthy merchants or members of the nobility. There were thousands of people with no job at all, however, perhaps living far from their homes and families, seeking out comfort and company wherever they could find them.
A Home for Foundlings is the story of the establishment and operation of the "Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exploited and Deserted Young Children" in 1739. Known as the Foundling Hospital, it was founded by Thomas Coram with a charter granted by King George the Second, and it is still in operation today as the Coram Family, a charitable organization addressing the needs of vulnerable children and facilitating adoptions.
Marthe Jocelyn's interest in the topic begins as her search for information about the orphanage in which her grandfather was placed as an infant and results in this wonderful introduction to the mostly tragic, but sometimes hopeful, experience of other children abandoned by impoverished mothers at the hospital.
Thomas Coram was less than seven years of age when he lost his own mother. After surviving to make and lose his fortune in America, he returned to England to reestablish his wealth and was horrified to see babies abandoned on London's dung heaps and left to die. This situation led him to fight both the well-established belief that aiding these infants would encourage the irresponsible behaviour of their mothers and London society's poor opinion of his outspoken manner and religious beliefs. He eventually won support by cleverly arguing that assisting these orphans would be result in badly needed soldiers, sailors and servants.
Within the valuable historical context of England's Industrial Age, Jocelyn presents both the cultural assumptions and operational constraints that shaped the history of the hospital. Space limitation meant that babies who were taken in were chosen by lottery and the state of their health. Tearful mothers jostled outside, and a lucky few were accepted into a reception room to forfeit their child, often wearing tiny tokens they would never see in case a mother was able to reclaim her child at a later date. Babies were examined, renamed, baptized, clothed, numbered and sent to a nurse. Several years following the establishment of a law requiring the hospital to turn no one away, the majority of infants taken in died, despite their improved conditions.
The hospital's work attracted the attention of many who saw it as spectacle, but also others whose own dark childhoods compelled them to become involved. The artist William Hogarth, composer George Handel, and Charles Dickens, who was deeply committed to publicizing the plight of the impoverished, all found ways to support Coram's efforts. While the foundlings were deprived of many thing; adequate amounts of food, creative and social experience, and protection from cruelty to name a few, their hospital was lavish architecturally and adorned with a fine art collection including scenes from the hospital. Handel not only supplied the hospital with support from proceeds of his music, including The Messiah, but also inspired musical training for the orphans, supplying them with a rarely enjoyed form of beauty and escape. The hospital was also the beneficiary of emerging medical techniques and philosophies, although usually matters of great debate. Breastfeeding, inoculations against smallpox, and improved sanitation were all championed by Foundling Hospital physicians.
Tragically, despite the efforts on their behalf, few championed the rights of the orphans that "graduated" to take on apprenticeships and domestic service. Not only did they face discrimination and abuse at the hands of employers, their cloistered life did not prepare them either for the life outside the orphanage or family life of their own. That Jocelyn's grandfather survived and went on to raise a family not only seems miraculous but provides the reader some hope that others did as well.
While the story of the Foundling's Hospital is most engaging when it is delivered as stories from the lives of orphans themselves (chiefly Hannah Brown), the information is delivered in a clear, engaging manner and well organized to address questions and study in the classroom. The photography and illustrations are interesting and informative, and a comprehensive glossary and timeline add to the value of the book as well.
Jocelyn's work offers young readers a wealth of information about the youngest victims of industrialization, from the small discomforts they suffered (poorly darned socks and bath water shared with dozens of others) to heartbreaking abuse at the hands of older children and staff, the indignity of their lives being viewed for amusement, and their exploitation by employers. It provides a rich opportunity to explore poverty and the plight of children throughout the ages and the continents. It offers a valuable lesson in the philosophical leap that is often required for us to reach out to others in need; that altruism does not necessarily perpetuate social problems, and that help, while often misplaced, is sometimes just the beginning of its resolution. And it encourages us to explore our own Canadian roots and how so many of our families arrived here as survivors of difficult lives we can only begin to imagine.
Lori Walker is completing a Masters in Children's Literature at UBC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.