The Secret Life of Dorothy Soames: A Foundling’s Story

Written by Justine Cowan
Review by Cathy Kemp

Before it became acceptable to have a child outside of marriage, the legitimacy of their son or daughter brought shame both to the mother and her offspring. In 1739 Thomas Coram founded the childcare institution commonly known as The Foundling Hospital. Many wealthy and famous people were involved in supporting it down the centuries, including Dickens, Gainsborough, and Handel. It was the accepted thinking that a child born in these circumstances was fit only for a menial role in life.

One such baby girl was born to Lena West from Shropshire. Once her daughter was admitted to the London facility, the only information given to Lena was that her “little girl was doing well”. These letters covered up the actual experiences of Dorothy who, having initially been placed with a foster mother who gave her basic physical care but no psychological or emotional support, at age five was returned to the Foundling Hospital without any forewarning of what was to come. The methods of discipline used, and the reinforcement of feelings of worthlessness and shame, would be classified as severe abuse and neglect nowadays. Even then, had it become widely known, there would have been public outcry and their premises shut down. The stigma of her illegitimacy and unimaginably challenging upbringing left Dorothy with enormous mental health and relationship difficulties.

The story is relayed to us by Dorothy’s younger daughter, Justine. It is a heartbreaking tale of her experiences from childhood into her adult years with a mother who kept her origins deeply buried from her offspring. The adult Dorothy never countenanced any enquiry about her background and exhibited strange behaviours that were unfathomable at times. Cowan’s first book is a riveting if harrowing read based on her own experiences, but with the addition of insight into the forensic methods required as she researched her mother’s history.