Authors: S D Bowring
The Foundling Saga:
S D Bowring
Text copyright © 2014 S D Bowring
All Rights Reserved
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental
Dedicated to my entire family
Huge Thanks to Teresa, Henry, Jack and Bernadette for input, support and patience.
There was a period of time in the first half of the 18
Century when the London public was consuming gin at the rate of approximately seven gallons per adult each year (almost thirty-two litres). There can be little doubt that one of the effects of this must have been the contribution to the large numbers of unwanted and abandoned babies, illegitimate or otherwise.
Unwanted babies were often delivered to poorhouses or, later, to workhouses. The mortality rate in workhouses was high - an estimated 90% of children dying before they reached the age of five years old.
The alarming sight of dead babies in the street led a certain Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain, to petition for the creation of a non-profit making institution to improve the lot of these unwanted infants.
Eventually, with help from well-heeled and sympathetic ladies, The Foundling Hospital was opened on 25
March 1741 in Hatton Garden for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’.
The term ‘Hospital’ was used in the sense of hospitality, welfare and education as opposed to a strictly medical establishment.
Foundling hospitals were started in other parts of Europe before and after this particular hospital with varying success, albeit alarming to later generations.
At the London Foundling Hospital over a four year period to 1760, it was reported that there were 15,000 arrivals. Of these only 4,400 survived to apprentice age (14 years for boys, 16 years for girls). This is less than a 30% survival rate.
One report into the Dublin Foundling hospital suggests that, during the period 1791 to 1829, there were approximately 52,000 arrivals. With only about 10,500 surviving, giving a stark 20% survival rate.
Suffolk Road Zone, England – October 14
The young female crouched down looking back over her shoulder at her owner who encouraged her from the safety of his vehicle. She had one hand on her baby’s carry-pod. Her light blue tightly fitting jacket and trousers identified her as a domestic medical aider.
“Hurry Katy!” said the man urgently. “We’ve strayed from the highway long enough.”
The man was her owner and she knew he wouldn’t get out of the vehicle to stand on a muddy track, just as she knew that she had done well to persuade him to even come this far. A feeling of guilt on his part perhaps but, nevertheless, she recognised a hint of compassion somewhere in this powerful man.
She laid the carry-pod down cautiously as the baby stirred a little and she glanced towards a field full of tents where the Outsiders lived out their poor but independent lives. Mules were tethered at the bottom of the field in various groups, but they didn’t seem to be aware of the visitors at the edge of the field. The baby stirred again and she touched his cheek and finally latched the cover on his pod, mindful that the Outsider’s dogs might find the baby first. Suddenly, her anguish was in danger of overcoming her; she had never felt anything like this in her life and it was a terrifying cold feeling of loss. However painful it was, she knew the alternative would destroy both her and the baby.
She hurried back to the vehicle and climbed back in, pulling the light fibreplastic door behind her. The Outsiders would soon stir she thought; indeed they may even be watching and giving her time to move away before they investigated her offering.
The man glanced back at her impatiently as she strapped herself in behind him. He let the two-seater vehicle move off. It soundlessly and automatically negotiated the track between hedgerows back towards the perceived safety of the city.
The zone they had left was known as Suffolk Road, so-called as it rested near an old highway that took travellers towards the county of Suffolk. This area was inhabited by various families of Outsiders.
The two travelled in silence. It would be a half-hour journey just to get back to the city limits and a further hour or so beyond that to her owners large house.
Her face already stained by tears, she knew he would be avoiding the subject of the baby and would probably never mention the child again. He had a relatively short ten-year lease on her services and she knew he had taken risks to allow her to keep the baby well away from his wives. They would have surely have had the child killed.
The vehicle lifted as it picked up speed. She felt a crushing emptiness and suddenly she doubled up in grief. He turned as she sobbed and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Breathe, little one, just take deep breaths. It’s going to be difficult for you today, tomorrow, and the next day but you must remain strong.”
Two Outsiders had indeed been watching the girl and her wealthy companion. The right to ride in a vehicle, let alone hire or purchase a vehicle was a privilege afforded by very few. As the vehicle moved away they walked towards the gap in the hedgerow and looked down at the carry-pod. The older one shivered, not so much from the early morning chill but more at the sight of an infant who would possibly have been killed but for the risk taken by its mother and her companion.
The younger Outsider, a female, crouched down, looking intently at the baby. She wore a knee-length brown leather cloak over her grey woollen jumper and brown fabric trousers to protect her from the mornings’ damp wind. Like her father, Nola wore waterproof plas-boots - a luxury item sourced from a distant market and felt necessary by most Outsiders to protect their feet, particularly during the wet months. Pulling her hood back she revealed her long dark hair and leaned forward for a clearer view holding her back as she seemed to focus on the baby further. “The baby looks healthy, father,” she said without looking up.
“A boy!” She said, looking at the runes on his blanket.
“Trouble.” Her father said flatly. He was dressed in a similar manner although his hood was down showing of his thick dark hair and short beard. “We don’t need this, but we must do what we must. Come Nola, bring him now, quickly.”
Even so, he waited patiently until Nola stood up lifting the pod by its handle. She turned to look at her father. “I am going to look after this child, father.”
His daughter was challenging him, but he would leave the discussion until later. No doubt Nola and her sister, Nerys, would browbeat him as they always did on matters of family.
“Come,” he whispered. He turned to walk briskly towards the sea of tents. He pulled his hood a little higher as he shivered again, but this time it was from the cold. The clouds were looming but he sensed no rain in them for the time-being which was some comfort after the previous week’s continual showers.
The tents in this field varied in size according to family numbers. The majority were similar to ancient teepee tents and were conical, waterproof structures with one or two covers over a series of inward pointing wooden poles. The poles were spread evenly at the base and came together at the top to support each other. On one side near the top was a ventilation flap that allowed smoke from the central fire to leave but stopped rain coming in. The tents had a single entrance via a flap which was tied open or closed as required. When open it allowed entrance, albeit by stooping, for anyone of average adult height or above. The tents usually benefited from a lining that further insulated the Outsiders to the changeable weather. A fire in the middle of the tent allowed for cooking and heating, although in the warmer weather this was often moved outside.
These tents were intended to be mobile. They could be dismantled at short notice and would usually be moved with the aid of mules pulling carts.
This field had about 120 tents supporting a ‘family’ of about 400 Outsiders, and this group were identifiable by the sign of the three red interlocking rings painted roughly on the outside of their teepees. Half a dozen other fields nearby were smaller but contained other families ranging in number from 80 to 300 Outsiders.
These were a people who lived and dressed simply. They lived off the land and shunned most of the old technology that they knew the city people still used heavily. History had shown, as far as the Outsiders were concerned, the destructive force of this technology.
The separate family groups mixed through a variety of ways including trade, cooperation on cattle, crop security and so forth. Those family groups further afield also kept in touch via the more nomadic individuals who provided family groups with certain medical services, such as travelling dentists and midwives. Their much appreciated services were only just secondary to providing news and gossip from around the area.
Nola’s immediate family was her father and her younger sister, Nerys. Her mother had succumbed to pneumonia when Nerys was six and Nola nine years old. Now seventeen, her memories of her mother were limited, but those memories were full of such fleeting tenderness that Nola was left with a feeling of loss during those quiet moments when she thought about her.
The fact that Nola was part of the largest family group in the area was irrelevant to her. Some families were simply bigger than others. In the wider sense, they all supported each other to some degree and there was always excitement when a new family moved to a nearby field, and also sorrow and regret when another family group moved on.
Foundlings were brought three or four times a year to the fields but during the last year these had been placed at neighbouring fields. No matter how discreet the families tried to be, word would spread after a week or so. Most finders kept their foundlings, or at least someone from the immediate family would, as the birth-rate of healthy children was despairingly low. The families were of the opinion that more of the distant pollution was being bought into the local areas by periods of stronger winds during the last five years. They knew the airborne poison was to blame for the decline in healthy births in recent years.
Nola’s chances of a child were slim and, as she walked past her father to move into the tent, she felt relief that the new baby she carried was already secure in their own warm home.
Nola’s younger sister, was still dozing as they entered but her father woke her gently and nodded towards the carry-pod.
Nola carefully laid the carry-pod beside her own bed mat. Her father indicated to her sister to approach with quiet but there was still a commotion as she jumped up in disbelief and rushed to Nola’s side in her long grey nightdress. Nola looked at her Father and Nerys with some trepidation as she opened the carry-pod and lifted the infant in a gentle embrace.
She felt an unbelievable feeling of love as the baby stirred.
Nola glanced at her father and he nodded with approval, but she also saw a look of quiet resignation as he sat on his wicker stool not taking his eyes off her or the infant.
Nerys gently reached into the carry-pod and passed a bottle to Nola. Whoever left the infant wanted the baby taken care of and Nola wondered at how the mother must have felt whilst preparing this last bottle. “It’s full,” she said, looking in awe at the infant, “and it’s a boy,” she added as she also saw the runes on his shawl. “Mother would have loved to see you with a baby.”
“Yes, a boy,” said Nola “but he isn’t awake yet for feeding.” The mention of her mother made Nola glance at her father. She returned his sad smile wordlessly.
“This is a foundling?” Nerys continued. Nola nodded confirmation. “Then he’s yours sister, isn’t he father?” Her father nodded. Nola thought it wasn’t just a nod of resignation but perhaps he could see the optimism of youth in the scene in front of him, and how could he deny that? For that, she wanted to hug her father but was immediately distracted as the infant stirred.
Her heart felt like it was near bursting as she looked at the baby’s tiny hands as the baby seemed to stretch his little fingers as he gentle writhed awake. Whilst her sister fussed around her, Nola was already thinking ahead. Her claim was already solid as the rightful new mother. The wealthy city people would certainly not dare return to admit the crime and Nola would, by default, be declared the mother by the time the news got out of the arrival of a foundling.
Her father was beside her, looking over her shoulder. “Let’s warm the milk” he said, “he will be squawking soon. The milk will need to be warm not hot, mind you”.
Clearly thinking ahead, he added, “I will talk to the women. He may be too young for goats’ milk but we may have no choice”.
Later that evening, with her sister still in awe beside her, Nola tried to feed the baby a second time. This feed however, was warm goat’s milk and the reality of the challenge of simply feeding the baby was becoming clear. Her father was in and out with various women who had now gone away, taking it upon themselves to see what could be done to provide a constant supply of milk. Thankfully her father strictly limited their visits as he could see Nola was becoming anxious enough.
Nola declared the boy be named Keller, a name meaning ‘Companion’. Strangely, the baby’s cry became a focal point of optimism in the field. A new life, a new challenge and a topic of conversation around every campfire for weeks, adding a little more immediate warmth than the sometimes piles of damp wood might allow.