Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : The Last Foundling by Thomas H McKenzie

Book Review : The Last Foundling by Thomas H McKenzie

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In the  18th century a Foundling Hospital was founded by a former sea captain Thomas Coram who was appalled by the many abandoned and homeless children living in the streets of London.

The hospital was essentially a children’s home  located first in Hatton Garden in 1741, then in a purpose  built hospital in Bloomsbury.The admission of children was usually restricted to those under twelve months and no questions were asked about the background of the child but a distinguishing token was often left by the parent with the child.

The hospital had the support of several well known painters such as William Hogarth,  Sir Joshua Reynolds and  Thomas Gainsborough,  it also had the support of George Frederic Handel who performed his Messiah in the Hospital’s chapel.

There is plenty of interest in the history of the Foundling Hospital, however the book The Last Foundling  considers the later stages of the hospital in  the  20th century.

That the hospital still functioned into the 20th century will be a surprise to many people and the book is a personal record of the authors time spent there in the 1940s and 50s.

In the 1920s, the Hospital decided to move its children to a  location in the countryside, eventually they ended up  in 1935 going to a new purpose-built Foundling Hospital in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire.

The book’s chapters are the memories of the mother (Jean) and the child (Tom), both give their impressions of their lives lived apart yet connected by the bond of mother and child.

For the modern reader , the idea that a mother would give up her child because of social convention would seem ridiculous. However Britain in the 1930s and 1940s was a very different place and having an illegitimate child was considered shaming to the family and the mother was in a terrible position of not being in a position to earn enough to survive and not eligible for the few state benefits.

The Foundling Hospital represented a way out of Jean’s situation but at considerable personal cost, her child was found foster parents who would bring the children up to the age of five then he would be returned to  the hospital.

This is the main aspect of the hospital procedures that seems unnecessary cruel, the child who no doubt thinks the foster parents are their real parents is taken from a family environment into a large institution.

In the chapter aptly named Paradise Lost, Tom describes this traumatic event which is heartbreaking  and seems almost Dickensian as the young boy faces the reality of life in a large institution.

The next few years sees periods in the hospital and periods with foster parents where young Tom experiences the kindness and unkindness of strangers.

Jean on the other hand, through marriages and children never forgets Tom but the chance of a reconciliation seem further and further away.

In 1954 Tom now aged 15 finally leaves the hospital to begin his working life eventually living in a hostel in Brixton, after working for a Fleet Street photography press agency , he undertook his National Service.

Eventually in 1959 Tom decides to track down Jean and they meet for the first time in 20 years.

This is a book that is interesting on many levels, from  Jean and Tom’s  personal point of view how two people’s lives are disrupted by societies intolerance to illegitimacy.  It also shows how an institution founded in the 18th century provided a security net for children up to 1950s when the idea of children being bought up such institutions was being questioned which eventually led to the Foundling hospital being closed.

But perhaps ultimately the book is a reminder of the resilience of people to overcome adversity and that for all our modern ills , there are significant areas where we have as a society really moved forward .

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

 If you would like to buy the book visit the Pan Macmillan website here

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