In 17th-century England care for unwanted (often illegitimate) children is the responsiblity of the parish which is often underfunded and ill-disposed. When the Coram Hospital is set up in London with many benefactors, everyone wants their child to go there.
However there are only 20 places, and unscruplous operators take money off people to deliver their children and then leave the babies to die and sell the older ones into slavery. Otis Gardiner and his simpleton son Meshak do this while peddling round the countryside. Otis also blackmails the better-off women whose illegitimate children he disposes of. Alexander Ashbrook is disinherited by his landowner father and makes his career in music having unwittingly fathered a child on his sister’s best friend. Meshak leaves his father and takes this son, Aaron, to Coram. Years later Alex is making a name for himself in London and meets his childhood friend Thomas. Aaron has made friends at Coram with Toby the son of an African slave. Toby is sold to one of the benefactors of Coram who is in fact a self-seeking and vicious man. The different strands pull together as Toby helps to uncover him and Alex is reunited with his family.
Rather in the Leon Garfield line, this book touches on what was undoubtedly a real issue – the attitude towards unwanted children – and deals with it quite nicely. The well-meaning attempts of those who try to care for the children are shown as laudable, and the grotesque actions of the slave merchants are clearly wrong. The wider-reaching issue of illegitimacy is not really touched on. The one specific instance is portrayed as an innocent one: “… not knowing where affection ended and passion began…they still didn’t realise what they had done.”
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of goodtoread.org