Orphans are incredibly common in history and fiction. From Moses to Mowgli, Cinderella to Harry Potter, Nelson Mandela, Mata Hari, Romulus and Remus, St Nicholas, Alexander Hamilton and Malcolm X, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, Ada Lovelace, Isaac Newton, William Dampier, Horatio Nelson, William Bligh and no less than five Prime Ministers of Australia.
Children without parents are popular characters in many stories, from the Bible to Dickens and Star Wars. They are often included to demonstrate the character’s vulnerability, and their often heroic drive to succeed. Streets of Tudor, Georgian and especially Victorian Britain seemed to have swarmed with children, which suggests an incredibly high fatality rate in parents. In early 18th century London, Captain Coram established the Foundling Hospital to care for the orphans of sailors. The fatality rate at sea was incredibly high, with Britain fighting wars and trading around the globe. Some mothers became destitute when their husbands were away so long their limited resources were exhausted so they were forced to seek work. But in the absence of childcare, they could not survive financially and care for their children. The same was true for fathers who had to work to support their families. If their wives died they sometimes had sisters or housekeepers to continue the childcare, but if not, they sometimes had to abandon them, so until recent times, the actual definition of an orphan was much wider than it is today.