Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Last Foundling by Tom H. Mackenzie - Book Review

The Last Foundling is not the sort of book that I'd ever pick out in Waterstones, but fortunately social attitude and human interest stories are a particular interest of my partner, hence it found its way onto our holiday reading list. It caught my eye because the book is set, for the most part, in Berkhamsted and unveils a chapter of the town's history with which I was previously unaware.  
It follows the parallel stories of a mother, Jean, and her child. It tells how Jean was forced to give up her son in 1939 to the Foundling Hospital, because, as an unmarried mother, she was unable to support him. She expresses her anguish in having to give up her child and charts her hopes and aspirations to be reunited with him once more.
The heart of the book is Tom's account of his upbringing: how, once removed from his birth mother and given a new name and identity, he was placed in a safe and happy foster home for his early years, from which he was torn away to be placed in the Foundling Hospital in Berkhamsted just before his fifth birthday.
The original Foundling Hospital had been established in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram and received its first foundlings in 1741. It moved to a purpose-built school in Berkhamsted in 1935 only to close in 1954. The buildings are now used by Ashlyns School.  No doubt the intentions of the Founder and the Foundling Hospital staff were otherwise, but Tom Mackenzie describes a cold, loveless, institutional existence; the brutality of the dormitories; and the scrapes into which he got with the various families who were kind and brave enough to take him in during the vacations.
Written throughout in the first person, the unemotional, matter-of-fact style of the book powerfully conveys the detachment and lack of belonging that clearly characterised the author's upbringing. There is no bitterness or blame here - just the mature reflections of an old man looking back on how this institutional unloving childhood shaped the adult that he became. Above all the book explores the theme of the importance of family life in defining who we truly are: the account of a foundling childhood devoid of affection or family can only draw out in the reader a deeper appreciation of those who provided love and a stable home for those of us who were lucky enough to have both.

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