When the Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 there was no understanding of a child’s need for attachment to a sensitive and caring adult. Mothers were not allowed to visit their children in the Foundling Hospital and the children grew up in group care. The emphasis was on ensuring their physical well being, and from the early years, there was an emphasis on education.

The fact that the children were fostered until the age of five years provided some emotional support, since that ensured that they experienced stability and family life during their early years. However the impact on these vulnerable children of being abruptly removed from their foster families to the Foundling Hospital residential school was not understood.

Although the institutional environment of the school was emotionally bleak, it did provide stability and the familiarity of a stable group of children and staff. However this system was made more depriving during the war years as there was a nation-wide shortage of staff since men were away at the front and many women worked in munitions factories and in other roles. The Foundling Hospital was short of staff and many lacked suitable qualifications. Routines were rigid and discipline often harsh.

This all added up to an emotionally depriving environment. A recent book (The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames: a Memoir), written by Justine Cowan, the daughter of one of the pupils who was admitted to the Foundling Hospital in the 1930s that draws on notes made by her mother, paints a grim picture.

Justine Cowan’s memoir is about her mother’s life as a ‘Foundling’ who was admitted to the care of the Foundling Hospital before World War Two (WWII).  As was the practice then, her mother’s name was changed and she became Dorothy Soames.  She was fostered with a family outside London until she reached the age of five, when she was returned to the care of the residential school in Berkhamsted. Dorothy was a pupil at the Foundling Hospital school throughout the war years. The school provided a strict and institutional setting which was not designed to meet children’s emotional needs.

Little understanding of rejection

John Caldicott, a former Foundling Hospital school pupil and a contemporary of Dorothy Soames, gives his perspective:

“In many ways Dorothy Soames’ life was not unlike that of other children in similar institutions, including the majority of England’s public schools, during the 1930’s to the 50’s.

“At that time there was little or no understanding of the rejection, loss and separation felt by children who attended such institutions,“ explains John. “Life could be made even more miserable for these children by the addition of age-old traditions of physical and mental abuse.”

From Cowan’s description of her own difficult childhood in the care of her mother who had little understanding of her daughter’s need for love nor the capacity to provide this, we get a picture of the way emotional deprivation can be transmitted through the generations if there is no help available to the mother.

It is important to understand something of the history of the Foundling Hospital and the changes that were introduced after the end of the war.

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram who was moved by the plight of the babies of parents who had no means to support them including unmarried mothers who suffered harsh stigma at that time. There was no public provision for such babies at that time, and many babies were abandoned in the open by desperate mothers with the result that many of the babies died.  The babies placed in the care of the Hospital were fostered by wet-nurses until the age of five years, experiencing the benefits of family life.  At the age of five, the children were returned to the care of the Foundling Hospital residential school in order to receive an education and fit them to be able to support themselves and live an independent life when they left the school.

Research and reform after WWII

At the time this was a well-intentioned scheme, but what was not understood was the impact on the children of the emotional trauma suffered when the children were abruptly separated from the foster families – their only attachment figures – at the age of five years. This was compounded by the impact of institutional care throughout their school years.  The damaging impact of institutional care and of broken attachments was not was not fully understood by professionals until after WWII when research into the impact of separation and the importance of attachments was undertaken by John Bowlby and others.  This led to the introduction of the Children Act 1948 and a recognition that institutional care was damaging for young children.

In the light of these changes, the Foundling Hospital revised the system that had operated since 1739, and moved from institutional care for the children, to long term foster care, ensuring continuity of care and of attachments for babies admitted to its care if they were not able to return to their families. Children were also encouraged to keep in touch with their families, and more children were able to be restored to their mothers’ care than had previously been possible.

Sadly these changes came too late to benefit children like Dorothy Soames.  However the book vividly illustrates the emotional damage inflicted on children during those years as well as the impact on the next generation – and thus demonstrates the importance of the subsequent changes.

The charity Coram today supports children and young people from birth to independence as a group of specialist charities. Coram’s adoption service for children who are not able to grow up within their own families recognises a child’s need for secure attachments with loving parental figures who can provide continuity and help children make sense of their history. Coram today also works to ensure young voices are heard in decisions that matter to them to improve the lives of children in care and leaving care.

John Caldicott reflects:

“Fortunately, in this day and age we have a far better understanding of how such conditions, imposed on children, were wrong and how they  impacted on a child’s life and into adulthood.

“It is by understanding and learning from history and past practices that organisations such as the former Foundling Hospital, now known simply as the children’s charity Coram, are able to provide an abundance of innovated services to our children today.

“Thank goodness a child or young person receiving care and support from Coram today would not recognise the lives of children from the Foundling Hospital.  So much has been learnt about what is best all children who, through Coram, have been given a voice and protection to ensure they receive all the help and care that is their right.”