The shame my mother carried to her grave: Author discovers her parent’s tragic early life at London’s Foundling Hospital after her death from Alzheimer’s
- Dorothy Soames was abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital as a baby
- Her childhood was ‘bereft of tenderness’ and physical punishment was common
- Dorothy’s mother Lena Weston, 31, asked for her back at the very start of the Blitz
- This was first denied, but Dorothy escaped before being returned to her mother
- Dorothy’s child Justine Cowan only found out about her early life after her death
THE SECRET LIFE OF DOROTHY SOAMES
by Justine Cowan (Virago £20, 320 pp)
When five-year-old Dorothy Soames first saw London’s Foundling Hospital, it was so imposing that she vomited.
Abandoned at the hospital as a baby, Dorothy was sent to the country to be wet-nursed.
For many foundlings these years provided the happiest memories of their childhood but for Dorothy they were ‘bereft of love or tenderness’, with foster parents who barely acknowledged her.
Things would only get worse when she was returned to the Foundling Hospital. On arrival the girls, stripped naked and scrubbed, had their hair cut back to the scalp.
Dorothy Soames (pictured) was abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital as a baby and had a childhood where physical punishment was common and was ‘bereft of love and tenderness’
Although the institution had many notable patrons — such as Dickens — the foundlings were constantly reminded of their lowliness.
They were clothed in brown sack-like uniforms and weren’t allowed to talk to each other at meals, except on Christmas Day as a special treat.
Physical punishment was common. Dorothy became the target of one Miss Woodward, who regularly beat her with such vigour that the bruises remained for weeks.
She once nearly drowned Dorothy by throwing her in the school swimming pool — she couldn’t swim — and poked her with a stick until she blacked out.
Her mother Lena Weston, 31, asked for her back at during the Blitz, which was denied. But Dorothy (pictured in 1962) escaped and was then allowed to return to her mother
The Foundling Hospital was, believe it or not, created with good intentions by Thomas Coram in 1739.
In one year, up to 1,000 babies could be left on London’s streets and Coram, who lost his mother aged four, ‘could never turn a blind eye to the tiny corpses or starving children’.
Unmarried mothers were usually thrown out by their families. The hospital, England’s first secular charity, was a lifeline to these desperate women as they could simply ring the bell and leave their babies at the gate.
On the first day, 117 children were abandoned this way. By the time Dorothy’s mother, 31-year-old Lena Weston, turned to the institution in 1932, the admissions process was stricter due to limited space.
Only illegitimate children, considered the most vulnerable, with ‘respectable’ mothers were accepted. Those women the exclusively-male board deemed likely to repeat their ‘mistake’ were not offered help.
Lena explained that the father was a ‘commercial traveller’ who had taken ‘liberties’ with her on a walk. Shunned by her family, she felt the child would be better off in the hospital’s care. Her pastor and doctor both vouched for her and so Lena’s daughter was admitted.
The children at Foundling Hospital (pictured) were clothed in brown sack-like uniforms and weren’t allowed to talk to each other at meals, except on Christmas Day as a special treat
But Dorothy’s daughter Justine Cowan (pictured) only discovered her mother’s tragic early life at the Foundling Hospital after she died of Alzheimer’s
But Lena never forgot Dorothy. At the start of the Blitz, she asked for her back, thinking her daughter would be safer in the country. At first, her request was denied but it was Dorothy’s ‘courage that brought about her freedom’.
Along with her friend Margaret, she escaped. Miraculously, the girls made it all the way to Margaret’s foster parents in Chertsey, before they were inevitably sent back to the Foundling Hospital.
Afterwards — to Dorothy’s delight — she was returned to her birth mother. The headmistress wrote to Lena claiming that, due to her escape, Dorothy was too ‘temperamental and difficult’ for the hospital to handle.
What happened then is a frustrating missing piece in an otherwise compelling story. The next thing we know for sure is that Dorothy arrived in 1950s San Francisco and married a lawyer.
Dorothy died of Alzheimer’s and her memoir, on which much of this book is based, skips over that part of her life. We can only assume that the pair became estranged.
As Dorothy’s daughter, Justine Cowan, points out in this gripping biography: ‘Once the bond between a parent and a child has been broken, it is difficult to mend.’
Dorothy and Justine had a strained relationship, with Justine saying it felt like psychological bullying, but Justine (pictured aged 12) unearthed her past after coming across her memoir
Dorothy and Justine had a strained relationship of their own. Dorothy would buy Justine clothes which were too big to make her feel overweight.
‘I remember standing half naked in front of her, humiliated, as she forced me to try them, the items slipped off my body,’ Cowan recalls. ‘There was no compassion in her eyes as tears streamed down my face.’
Justine pieced together the puzzle of her mother’s early life in her book The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames
To Justine, this felt like psychological bullying. ‘Sometimes, I secretly wished that my mother had hit me… giving me evidence’, she admits.
After her mother’s death, however, she came across Dorothy’s memoir and unearthed her Foundling secret.
On a trip to London from the U.S., Cowan visited the Foundling Museum, housed in the old hospital building in Brunswick Square, where she was given Dorothy’s file.
She pieced together the puzzle of her mother’s tragic early life and, in doing so, began to understand, forgive and even feel proud of the woman who had once been so cruel to her.
Now, Cowan fondly describes her as ‘a girl with a smattering of freckles and silky brown hair, feisty and courageous’ who she ‘had grown to love’.
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