Sunday 25 December 2011

ANOTHER SIDE OF CHRISTMAS 1918 by Eleanor Updale

Merry Christmas! Today's the day.

I hope you haven't been driven here by a ghastly family argument or loneliness heightened by the propaganda of the season. As you can see, the History Girls never rest, and I have taken time off from basting the turkey to bring you today's reflections on the past.

Most families have long-established traditions for the big day, ranging from the pre-lunch walk to the endless game of Monopoly. My household is no exception, though for us, the pattern is newly formed. Our children lack living grandparents on both sides, and my own father had no history of family Christmases to pass on.
He was brought up in the Foundling Hospital: the great orphanage founded by the extraordinary 18th century philanthropist, Captain Thomas Coram.

Some of you may know the site,near King's Cross in London, where the original building stood. It is now known as Coram's Fields - a splendid play area where no adult is allowed unless accompanied by a child.

Balloting for admission to the Foundling Hospital in the early days:

My father was admitted as a baby in 1913. Like all the Foundling Hospital children, he was baptised with a new name (Edmund Updale) and sent out to a foster family until his fifth birthday, when he was scooped back into the main school. In later life, he talked very little about his experiences there. That was partly because of a lingering (and deliberately induced) sense of shame at his mother's disgrace and his own dependence on charity, and partly a reflection of the age in which he lived. Glorying in disadvantage was not yet fashionable in the brief time we had together. He died in 1976.

Throughout my father's lifetime, the law prevented him from finding out about his true background, but shortly after his death the rules were changed, and I have discovered much of the story, and met some of the foundlings who shared his upbringing. I will keep his personal details for another time (and perhaps another place) but today, since it's Christmas, I will (after a bit of a digression into the history of the Foundling Hospital) tell you about a pair of twins who were classmates of his. I had the privilege to meet them in the 1980s, shortly before they died.

The Foundling Hospital was always good at PR. In its earliest days, with Handel and Hogarth as patrons, it was the glitterati charity of choice, and a venue for society concerts.
The wonderful Foundling Museum still holds an art collection of staggering quality, including this magnificent portrait of Captain Coram by Hogarth, and treasures such a manuscript of the Messiah, donated by Handel himself.

In the 20th century, photographers did their best to portray Christmas at the Foundling Hospital as a time of unrestrained joy.

Mixing the pudding/ Learning Carols /Putting up the decorations:

I think we can all guess the degree to which those images were staged, but no doubt special events did happen. However, for most of the time, nothing was allowed to challenge the rule of routine, and that is where the twins come in.

They were born on Christmas Eve, 1913. One can only imagine the circumstances that drove their mother to give them up. It would be possible now for any descendants to find out her story - up to a point.
Like all official records, the Foundling archives must be approached with caution. Getting your child into the institution was not easy. The mother had to produce a deposition explaining how she had landed in her predicament. Unless she had been widowed, she had to portray herself as as a respectable girl led astray, preferably with the promise of marriage in the background. The midwife was required to declare that this was the unfortunate woman's first confinement. You weren't allowed to make the same mistake twice.
Heaven knows what happened to the children of women who failed the tests. The pressure to lie was intense. My own natural grandmother wrote convincingly of he fiance absconding to America. I traced him through electoral registers, still living in London at the time of my father's birth, and for years afterwards.

Love tokens, left by the mothers of babies given over to the care of the Foundling Hospital:

But back to the twins...

Their first four years were spent in the relative normality of a foster home. During that time they were never disabused of the notion that the people looking after them were their parents, and no one did anything to prepare them for the arrival of a car to take them away on their fifth birthday.

the two old men were visibly moved when they told me about being wrenched from their foster parents. But their sadness was not caused only by losing people they had come to love and depend upon. They were still angry, seven decades later, about missing that family Christmas. The date had given the memory of the separation extra force, and that was why it was one of the first things they spoke of when I met them. Other former foundlings talked of cold dormitories, harsh teachers, and the horror of hitting puberty unprepared. For the twins, it was the lost Christmas that dominated their memories - and of course, though they cannot have known it at the time, it must have been a very special Christmas for families everywhere: 1918 - the first since the end of the Great War.

My father and the twins are probably somewhere in this picture. Apparently the teacher was every bit as nasty as he looks:

These days, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have been so cruel as to deny the twins a few days of family fun. And yet those involved probably felt they were doing the right thing. We are all prisoners of the orthodoxies of our times, and we have different ways of torturing children in care now: from serial fostering to surrounding them with low expectations (including the assumption that most will get only four GCSEs,). Many are thrown into the outside world at 16, and those who want to stay on to do A levels may have to fight - particularly if their eighteenth birthday falls before the exams.

But it's Christmas, and I shouldn't be ranting...

Instead, I can tell you some positive things about what has become of Captain Coram's 18th century vision for deprived children.

The Foundling Hospital no longer exists as a residential institution, but in its new incarnation as the charity, Coram, it is a leading force for improving adoption practice throughout the country. It has a formidable record. 97% of adoptions organised by Coram remain secure (one in five of those arranged by other agencies breaks down). Coram also unites children with their prospective adopters remarkably quickly, which may be a reason for the success.
The charity is also in the forefront of innovation in family law, music and art therapy, and all sorts of services for children and families in need.

You can find out more at where there are links to more details about the history of the Foundling Hospital.
If you haven't yet made your Christmas charity donations, you would be hard-pressed to find a better cause.

I've told you the story of the twins because at Christmas they are always on my mind. But even though, to modern eyes, the authorities acted shockingly in their case, those two boys had a lot to be grateful for. Like their classmate, my father, they may have lacked love, but they were given shelter, healthcare, and an education which fitted them to make the most of the opportunities created by the social upheavals of the 20th century. They were lucky - and to be the child of a foundling is to be privileged indeed.

I never pass the statue of Thomas Coram outside the Foundling Museum without touching his foot and saying thank you.

By saving my father, the philanthropists of long ago made possible my own easy passage through life. Just one generation on, our family's fortunes are transformed. Was that institutional care really so bad?

Now. Why not turn off the computer, go and hug your loved ones, and have a very merry time for the rest of Christmas day?


Leslie Wilson said...

Happy Christmas, Ellie, and I'm glad I read your posting first thing - not driven to it by anything. Shall take a moment to think of all the kids who aren't with family today and say a prayer for them, just in case that helps. Very moving - it just makes you realise how precious ALL children are.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thank you for sharing that moving story, Eleanor. We would love to hear about your father and your search to find his roots one day.

MERRY CHRISTMAS to you and all the other History Girls and to history lovers everywhere!

Sue Purkiss said...

A really engrossing post, Ellie. What an awful thing those twins were put through - the wrench of being torn away from the life and the family they thought were theirs, and at such a time of year, too.

Thanks, and have a lovely day.

Katherine Langrish said...

A wonderful and very special post for Christmas day - thankyou, Ellie.

adele said...

Such a moving and wonderful post, Ellie. Do write more about your father....And the whole Coram story is fascinating. It's a super museum to visit, too. I will think of your dad now when I pass that statue!

Penny Dolan said...

All I can say is thank you for this totally appropriate post. Ellie.

Am off to do hugging and thanking right now.

Happy Boxing Day to you all.