Home Article Book Reviews ORPHANS: A HISTORY


Orphans are everywhere in literature even to the present day. They are obviously useful to storytellers and particularly to the writers of children’s books, who naturally want their heroes to undertake adventures without the controlling eye of an ordinarily caring parent.

Now that the state of being an orphan is relatively rare in the west, we have a tendency to assume that novelists were preoccupied with orphans for abstract, narrative reasons. But of course, orphans were very much more common in ages of high mortality.

Seabrook’s book is full of heart-rending glimpses of suffering most of which, though not all, are connected to orphans

The London Orphan Asylum was founded around the turn of the century for the reception of destitute orphans, particularly those descending from respectable parents’. The difference between the deserving poor and the others would be visited on their children’s fates.

Nevertheless, most orphans led a precarious existence. The Elizabethan Poor Law gave magistrates and parish officials the power to bind over orphans and pauper children as apprentices. They were often vulnerable, Orphans could be snatched from the street and sold into servitude.

It was taken for granted that the poor or orphaned would be set to work. A 1570 census described children as young as six as idle and children of four were bound apprentices.

The savage brutality of those institutions carried on well into the 20th century. In an orphanage in the 1930s “you were not known by name, only a number”. Of course, individual cases of terrible abuse continue to the present day. There are two parts of the world where 19th century standards of care and institutionalization still exist; China and Bangladesh.

The voices of the orphans themselves only rarely sound out with any individuality. They were children who were usually discouraged from saying anything that wasn’t dutiful to the institution or to their paid guardians, and frequently their statements, if they
exist, touchingly parrot the approved phrases of their day. Only occasionally, as in the superb testimonies of Henry Mayhew, the author of London Labour and the London Poor in the 1840s, do the voice of orphans sound truthful and human.

This was always a vulnerable and horribly neglected part of human society, and those who endured it were sometimes strong, but mostly defeated by their situation. It is almost impossible now to reach these people’s lives. Their voices were stifled from the start.

by: Jeremy Seabrook hurst


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