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  • Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings by Helen Berry
  • Jane Humphries
Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings. By Helen Berry (New York, Oxford University Press, 2019) 384 pp. $27.95

In her account of the origins and nature of the help afforded to orphaned and abandoned children in eighteenth-century England, Berry connects microhistory with global history. Orphans of Empire focuses on the London Founding Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1741. Coram’s success in bringing to fruition his “darling project,” the establishment of a “Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Expos’d and Deserted Young Children,” was in many ways surprising (27). The need for such an institution was patently obvious in the streets and alleys of the city. Indeed, Coram himself was apparently motivated by the pitiful sight of the small discarded corpses that littered the roadsides on approaches to London. Many other European capitals had already established foundling [End Page 139] homes and state orphanages. But to be successful on the requisite scale, Coram had to overcome the apathy and hostility of opponents who suggested that preserving the lives of abandoned children, many of whom must be assumed illegitimate, gave licence to immorality and vice. He needed to secure support from the great and the good of London. Berry links Coram’s success, and the subsequent flourishing of the Hospital, to its public connection with emerging ideas about Britain’s global role and the need for a citizenry able and willing to shoulder that role.

Numerous factors linked Hospital and Empire. Coram’s own world- view, as Berry notes, “was shaped as a footsoldier of Empire ... used to undertaking huge and ambitious projects in the interests of the British state” (28). Although motivated, in part, by Christian charity, he also saw the Hospital as an institution in the service of the state. Thus was Coram’s project able to overcome opposition. In terms of its envisaged value to the mercantilist state, the Foundling Hospital stood alongside the Marine Society, which recruited older boys for sea service. The two charities were linked by Jonas Hanway, who was a governor of both institutions. The Hospital, however, seems not to have played a significant role in the creation of a “race of mariners” (98). Nor did it, despite the large grant given by parliament at the time of the Seven Years’ War with the express intention of augmenting Britain’s military forces, provide a dedicated stream of military recruits. Instead, the Hospital apprenticeship records suggest, in the absence of specific numbers, that the foundling children were “sent wherever there were labour shortages”—to rural Yorkshire, backfilling the gaps in farm labor created by the rural exodus into the burgeoning textile towns; to both traditional and factory manufacturing; and to timeless domestic service (174). The foundlings were more likely to become cogs in the economic wheels of Empire than to feature on its frontiers or sail on its oceans.

In her wonderful compilation of fragmentary but telling microhistories extracted from the extensive Hospital archives, Berry loses track of links to the meta-narrative of imperial expansion; the individual stories, too, suggest destinies of mundane toil. One exception concerns foundling George King, the reconstruction of whose experience is not reliant on terse entries in various Hospital records, since he wrote a memoir that puts flesh on the bones of an individual’s story. The memoir describes his early fostering and subsequent separation from his nurse and family, his life and education in the Hospital itself, his apprenticeship and its failure, his running away to sea, and his service in the Royal navy. It includes a vivid first-hand account of the Battle of Trafalgar, including what the combatants had for breakfast! This particular foundling’s story, uniquely provided in the longhand of an autobiography, ties Coram’s institution memorably into the imperial narrative.

Yet, straining after imperial connections distracts from the other important implications of both King’s autobiography and Berry’s institutional history. Both depict an institution that fed, clothed, educated, and even seemingly cared for abandoned children. It found and nurtured [End Page 140] hundreds of children who would otherwise...


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pp. 139-141
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