Stories that feature orphans are common in fiction, such as Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, Cinderella, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Harry Potter. They are often included to evoke sympathy for their loneliness and vulnerability, which allows their ultimate success to be more dramatic. But orphans are surprisingly common in history, such as Moses, Nelson Mandela, Alexander Hamilton, Ada Lovelace, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, William Dampier, Horatio Nelson, Malcolm X and 5 Prime Ministers of Australia.
Such statistics seem to reinforce the widespread notion that most people died at the age of around 35 but this is an average; given how high was infant mortality, this means that significant numbers saw middle and old age. The reality is that an orphan was defined as a child that had lost only one parent; in the absence of family support or a quick remarriage, most single parents were unable to provide income and childcare so were forced to abandon their offspring.
England is different from the Continent in many ways, and there were no orphanages until Captain Coram established London’s Foundling Hospital, supported by the great and the good including Hogarth and Handel. Children were left by their mothers who provided a token as identification which would allow them to reclaim their children, but very few did. Some parents tried to keep their children and newspapers of the 18th and early 19th centuries reported fatal accidents by children left unsupervised, often having set themselves on fire.
Though the first Poor Laws were passed in the age of Elizabeth, provision was uneven, and generally poor so it seems that orphans were taken in by neighbours. Talking to people of mature years, I sometimes hear of orphans being taken in by families. They probably did this when a parent was ill or the mother recovering from childbirth. A pensioners’ group told me of a young boy who was passed between families in the neighbourhood; most in the group recall sharing their beds with him, but denied being related to him. It seems his father was in the army and his mother a ballerina, an odd combination but which suggests they were both away from home, and had left the boy with a relative who had perhaps died. Stranger yet was my partner at the time recalled he had an aunt who was a dancer and uncle in the military….
But to return to the orphans. When Henry VIII abolished the monasteries, he put an end to most of their activities, including education and care of the poor. The end of celibate communities caused a population explosion, but there were no means of coping with the poor and the streets of London and other cities were claimed to be full of criminals and beggars, many of whom were children. The solution was to send them to the colony of Virginia as servants, promising land at the end of their term, but this rarely happened. Instead, they were subject to abuse, rape and murder, and since the justices were those committing such heinous crimes, there was no punishment. John Donne was a member of the Virginia Company, primarily a money making group; he recommended sending children – toddlers even – to work the tobacco fields. Their average survival was a mere 2 years, though this was likely similar to if they had remained in England with nobody to care for them.
Orphans were also found in the more affluent families, and charity schools were founded and funded in many towns and cities by merchants. Some of these have become public schools which continue to be treated as charities. How and when they changed from genuine charities to elite schools is claimed to be a mystery, but their founding was to educate the children of local citizens, so were never designed for the poor. Most children were home educated, mostly by their mothers, but if they were orphans this was not possible, so they were often sent to charity schools. They were generally given a basic education until they were old enough to be apprentices, the fees for which were also paid from the schools’ funds.
For further information on this topic, see my book The Midas of Manumission: The Orphan Samuel Gist in ebook, paperback and hardback.