When a teenage Justine Cowan saw her mother Eileen scrawling the name “Dorothy Soames” over and over on a piece of paper, she was baffled.
It took 20 years for Justine to realise it was a crucial clue to a secret that her mother had kept about herself.
Now, Justine has found out that Dorothy was her late mother’s real name – changed after she was abandoned at the Foundling Hospital, where a lifelong trauma began on Dorothy’s first day there, aged five.
“She was lying in bed and called for a chamber pot, not because she needed it – she wanted to know if she was being cared for,” says Justine.
“The nurse came over and my mother was unable to use the pot, so the nurse punched her in the stomach.”
Her mother died in 2012 and Justine has written a moving memoir about how she uncovered her family’s painful past.
“It took me years to gather the courage to learn more,” Justine says.
“I discovered the agony of generations of women scorned by society, and thousands of innocent children imprisoned although they committed no crime.”
Eileen wrote a memoir and gave it to Justine when she was in her early 20s, but she didn’t want to read it at the time because of their troubled relationship.
Going through it 25 years later, she pieced together the story of her mother’s life.
Today we imagine foundlings – abandoned kids – to be left at police stations or hospitals, but it wasn’t always the case.
Letters confirmed Dorothy’s mother, Lena Weston applied to the Foundling Hospital, which had moved from London to Berkhamsted, Herts, in 1926, to accept her daughter into care from birth in 1932.
Pregnant, unmarried and alone, Lena had no other choice.
Women had to prove they were respectable and of good character before their babies were accepted.
“I cannot imagine the humiliation she felt,” says Justine, 54.
“She had to go in front of a panel of men by herself and convince them she was a decent woman in order to have her child cared for.”
The Foundling Hospital was set up in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, as a solution for thousands of babies often thrown into the streets and left for dead.
From 1741, when the first babies were admitted, to 1954 when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital took in 25,000 children.
Today, it’s a children’s charity, Coram – unrecognisable from the hospital of the early 1900s. In its 1918 annual report 80% of boys who left there enlisted in the military.
Others became servants or tradesmen.
Girls mostly became maids and cooks.
“Caring for foundlings was no mere charitable act, but could supply the government with what it needed,” Justine says.
“Coram made a devil’s bargain, committing children to a hard life of scrubbing floors and changing chamber pots, or being sent to war to defend a nation that viewed foundlings as disposable.”
Once accepted, foundlings were taken to the countryside as babies to be raised by foster parents until they were five when they were returned to the hospital.
Justine explains: “No matter what relationship the child had with the foster parents, who usually they thought were their real parents, the children were sent to the hospital with no explanation.
“Dropped at the door, ushered in, stripped of their clothes, roughly bathed in tubs with children they’d never encountered, their heads were shorn, and they were put in uniforms that they would wear for the rest of their childhood in successive sizes.
“It’s more reminiscent of an introduction to a prison.”
Dorothy’s memoir recounts how staff beat her and never showed any warmth.
One teacher, “Miss Woodward”, threw Dorothy in the swimming pool for no reason and pushed her head under water with a pole as she struggled to breathe, inviting other teachers to watch.
“They appeared to derive joy from brutalising the children,” Justine says. “Miss Woodward on the outside was beautiful. She was a PE teacher, athletic and so cruel.”
But Dorothy was resilient; she snuck outside to play in the snow and got on a bus and tried to escape. Yet she had no idea her birth mother wanted her back.
Lawyer Justine says: “My grandmother spent 12 years trying to get her back. She wrote letter, after letter.
“She’d receive very brief responses that just said: ‘Your little girl is quite fine’. I think they viewed my mother as their property.”
But Dorothy had become “difficult” to handle and in 1943, Lena was allowed to take the 12-year-old home to Shropshire.
For Justine, this is where the trail went cold. She never found what went wrong between mother and daughter. It was a bigger blow to hear Lena only died in 1971.
“I assume the women became estranged,” she says.
“The moment I figured out I could have met her was amazing. I always longed for a grandparent.”
Dorothy moved to the US in the 1950s, changing her name to Eileen Weston, the name Justine presumes she was given at birth. She met Justine’s dad, John Alderson Thompson, a GI, in 1960.
They wed and had two daughters but Justine carried unbearable anger towards her mum.
“I’d make lists of the times she wounded me – ignoring my screams when I had searing earache; throwing my dolls’ house across a room; her face contorted with rage, overturning a glass coffee table over a slight.”
Eileen tried to tell her the truth when Justine was in her 20s, but she didn’t want to know – “I tried to distance myself.”
Later when Justine got Eileen’s memoir “Coram Girl” in the post, she filed it away, unread. It wasn’t until after Eileen’s death from Alzheimer’s in 2012, that she read it and began her search.
She visited The Foundling Museum in London and realised it looked similar to how her mother furnished their California home.
“I saw these chairs that looked like what my mother had. I began to cry.’”
The pieces came together and Justine finally began to understand her mum’s behaviour.
“If my mother had the capacity to be a good mother she would’ve been,” she says. “I had shame around not being able to connect with her. I felt I was at fault.
“We were caught up in this dark his-tory and perhaps it wasn’t her fault, it wasn’t mine. It was just a tragedy.”
-- to www.mirror.co.uk