Orphans: A History

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By Jeremy Seabrook Hurst.

In one of those gentrified Cornish cafes last half-term, we sat next to a father and son who didn’t speak to each other for the entire 50 minutes we were there. The father was glued to his phone while the young child looked alternately sad and bored. It was difficult to witness this modern-day neglect. 

Jeremy Seabrook, however, would have had no trouble naming it. In his latest book, he condemns our obsession with technology as “orphaning without parallel”. A celebrated author of more than 40 books, he extends his scrutiny far beyond those whose parents have simply died, applying the Greek word orphanos, meaning bereaved, to all those whose childhoods have been scarred by absent parents. Which in his eyes, over the past 500 years, adds up to a gargantuan army of the dispossessed and emotionally deprived. The chronology is a bit rackety, jumping back and forth over the centuries, but what the book lacks in rigorous editing it makes up for in dates, detail and passion. 

He begins with the Poor Law of 1547, passed in a time of increasing poverty, which enabled five- to 15-year-olds to be forcibly taken from their parents and set to work as “apprentices” until the age of 21 for males, and 20 for females. For the next 400 years, all children without perceived parental control or guidance “were denounced by Puritans, disciplined by workhouses, reformatories and industrial schools and chastised and beaten by teachers”. Many children, he argues, led lives of virtual slavery, from the 16th-century paupers compelled by the state to be taken in by more prosperous households, to the orphaned and illegitimate girls of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries in the mid-20th century. 

Even the merchant classes sent their children to serve in other households at an early age, Seabrook points out, exposing them to rigorous discipline “uninfluenced by family sentiment”. It was a form of emotional and often physical abuse replayed in Britain’s public schools, where the wealthy deposited their children from the age of seven. 

For Britain’s “burdensome” poor in the 18th and 19th centuries, workhouses were the preferred repository, of which there were more than 2,000 in England and Wales in the 1770s. By 1840, almost half their residents were children. Few survived the harrowing conditions, their short, unloved lives perversely recorded as: “Died by the visitation of God.”

Others were banished overseas, many before 1776 to North America. In Life and Adventures, published in 1757, Peter Williamson describes being lured away from playing on the Aberdeen quayside at the age of eight by human traffickers, to be sold to plantation owners for £16. Other boys as young as 10 were “conveyed to Her Majesty’s Service at Sea”, where they invariably failed to survive assaults by predatory officers, “all traces of their existence effaced as they were consigned to the chill waters”. 

Seabrook recounts the story of a Mr Jouveaux, who in 1801 employed 17 apprentice girls, who “embroidered on muslin from four or five in the morning till 11 or 12 at night”. All 17 slept in a garret in three shared beds, an echo of the child sweatshops of Bangladesh and Delhi today. 

Victorian do-gooders set up dozens of orphanages in a bid to help, but these often proved to be brutal, loveless places. A woman called Hetty Day, sent to the Reedham Asylum for Fatherless Children in 1929, provides one of the book’s most moving passages. “If we talked when we shouldn’t, we had to sit and hold our tongues between our fingers. If we talked after we’d been put to bed, they pulled the sheets over our heads, and I was always afraid of the dark.” Hetty was two years old. Known only as a number, G80, she wasn’t even granted the dignity of her own name. It seems inconceivable that this was still happening in the 1920s, more than 40 years after parliament had passed a charter criminalising “wilful cruelty to children”. 

The ramifications of the broken lives of today’s 153m orphans worldwide remain incalculable — yet millions more are being mentally orphaned, Seabrook argues, by what he calls the “Lethe of technology” — like our ignored techno-orphan boy in the Cornish cafe. 

Seabrook saves his greatest ire for the facilitators of this scourge, us parents included. “We are living through a direct kind of orphaning — whereby children are voluntarily surrendered from the tender encirclement of loving arms, and passed, fondly and trustingly, to the baleful surrogate parenting of the baby farmers of market and technology”. 

Look around as you read this review and ask yourself — what if those words turn out to be true? 

Jackie Annesley