Helen Berry has produced a remarkable study, informative and impassioned. She also reminds us of the problems that face us now, such as the thousands of migrant children left in limbo without a passport. The eighteenth-century governors of the Foundling Hospital may have been paternalistic, but they were powerful lobbyists, arguing on behalf of children in cases of abuse and neglect with a passion that we still sorely need today.
Her well organised, workmanlike account concentrates on its 18th-century history and does an important job of clearing a way through a mass of repetitious detail, while acknowledging how telling and human that detail is. She is particularly good at interweaving a surviving autobiographical account by one foundling, George King, with records of many other lives, from foster mothers attempting to be reunited with the children they fostered to apprentices surviving abuse.
However, Berry, a professor of British history at Newcastle University, is careful not to impose modern standards on events of long ago. She reminds us that, if problems developed, children would return to the hospital, which remained their faithful guardian. Hers is a more positive assessment than most readers will expect. It’s easy to criticise the cold regimentation of the hospital, much more difficult to notice the kindness swirling amid those endless rows of beds.