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A guest post by LH Member Julian Woodford.
Review: Orphans of Empire by Helen Berry.

orphans of empireThe spirit of William Hogarth runs vividly through Orphans of Empire, Professor Helen Berry’s latest book, which explores the story of what happened to the orphaned or abandoned children of London’s Foundling Hospital. Before reading it, I knew that the hospital was the brainchild of the shipwright, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. I knew too from Jenny Uglow’s excellent biography of Hogarth that the artist had been Coram’s friend and an enthusiastic and active patron of the hospital. But I hadn’t realised just how firmly the Foundling Hospital story was seated in Hogarthian London until I read Berry’s fascinating account, which draws heavily on Hogarth’s work for its illustrations and for two of its principal chapter headings.

I am somewhat red-faced to admit that I had never managed to visit the Foundling Museum, tucked in the north-east corner of Bloomsbury’s Brunswick Square, next door to Virginia Woolf’s former residence and adjacent to the former site of Coram’s hospital. So it was a treat to follow Helen Berry’s directions, taking the road less travelled by the throngs of British Museum or Covent Garden-bound tourists leaving the Underground at Russell Square and instead heading, via Brunswick Square and its giant plane tree, to Coram’s Fields. The Foundling Museum, with its poignant collection of foundling tokens and its impressive recreation of the hospital’s Court Room, (not to mention several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait and ‘The March to Finchley’) is a humbling yet hugely rewarding experience, but I can state wholeheartedly that its enjoyment is magnified several-fold by the contemporaneous reading of Professor Berry’s book.

Berry’s account interweaves two themes. She is not the first historian to articulate the broad general history of Thomas Coram and his Foundling Hospital in the context of the eighteenth-century charitable movement among London’s governing elite. But she has broken new ground in exploring the rich seam of the Foundling Hospital archive (seventeen double-decker buses-worth of shelving, as Berry points out). This has enabled her to supplement the institutional story with snippets from the remarkable diary of George King, a foundling who went on to experience life as an apprentice in the City of London before running away to sea, fighting at Trafalgar and teaching in South Carolina before ending his days as he had begun them, institutionalised in London as a Naval Pensioner and as clerk to the Greenwich Hospital. As Berry touchingly puts it, the ‘single precious thread’ of King’s diary, punctuated by the ‘smaller broken whispers’ of other former foundlings, has allowed her to illuminate how Britain’s imperial progress shaped the fates of some of the poorest in society.

Orphans of Empire’s many highlights include Berry’s moving and vivid description of the grief of young mothers as they handed over their new-born babies to the hospital, almost certainly never to see them again. Throughout the book, Berry knits together a most interesting recap of the persistent central role played by the orphan/foundling in myth and literature, from Moses to Romulus and Remus, Fielding’s Tom Jones and Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Her statistical analysis hammers home the sheer scale of failure of eighteenth-century society and parochial government to provide social support for children. Survivors like George King were lucky: two-thirds of the almost 15,000 children admitted to the hospital between 1756-1760 died while in its care, a mortality rate that sometimes rose to as high as 90%. And I was intrigued to learn that several of the hospital’s main benefactors, including Thomas Coram and Hogarth themselves, along with Georg Friedrich Handel, were each themselves childless and that this lack may have been a driving force of their philanthropy.

My only disappointment in this otherwise excellent book is some careless editing. I became confused by the interchangeable use of the terms ‘General Reception’ and ‘General Admission’ (compounded by distinct index entries) to describe the failed experiment in 1756-1760 when parliamentary funding led to the hospital becoming a national, rather than just a London-based, concern and which led to an explosion in demand that almost overwhelmed the institution’s ability to cope. In a similar vein, the statistical analysis of admission numbers and mortality could have been presented more coherently in a single place instead of being scattered throughout, with some resulting unnoticed editorial duplication (pages 58, 97).

This small gripe is not enough to spoil an enlightening account of one of the peripheral but important byways of Britain’s imperial history. Helen Berry’s use of detailed archival research to amplify and vivify the tale of a famous London institution is instructive and exemplary. Orphans of Empire is a super book, nicely produced, with good black & white illustrations, clear endnotes and indexing, and I recommend it to all London Historians.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By HELEN BERRY. pp. xv + 364 + 20 illustrations within text, indexed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. £20.00, but available for less. ISBN 978-0-19-875848-8. Hardback. Published 11 April.

This book is London Historians members’ book competition for March 2019.


The Foundling Museum is open Tuesdays to Sundays, admission £10 for adults.


Julian Woodford is a historian and author of The Boss of Bethnal Green, Joseph Merceron the Godfather of Regency London. @HistoryLondon

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