I always knew my mother had a secret.
She guarded it fiercely, keeping it under lock and key. That was how I envisioned it – a hidden chamber tucked away in the recesses of my mother’s twisted mind. But it was too big to be contained. It poisoned her thoughts and covered our family in darkness.
When I was 19, my mother accidentally gave me a clue to her past. I’d driven home after a panicked call from my father to say that she was having one of the emotional episodes we’d all come to dread.
I tiptoed into her dim bedroom, just making out my mother’s silhouette as she sat up in bed. She was holding a notepad. I immediately recognised her old-fashioned calligraphic script, deep indentations in the thinly-lined paper, along with dark smudges and small tears where it looked like a pencil might have broken.
Each line contained a name, written over and over, with the same unwavering precision. It was a name I had never heard before, and would not hear again for many years: ‘Dorothy Soames, Dorothy Soames, Dorothy Soames…’
Author Justine Cowan (pictured) always knew her mother had a secret but she guarded it fiercely
Pictured is Eileen, AKA Dorothy Soares, in San Francisco in 1962. Justine never spoke to her mother about the name Dorothy
I never spoke to my mother about Dorothy Soames. Not even later, as I watched Alzheimer’s whittle away at her brain, stealing a few words here, a memory there.
I didn’t want to know her secrets.
I had moved into an adult life, as an environmental lawyer, that kept my mother at arm’s length, always ensuring there were thousands of miles between us.
When I met people who learned I was my mother’s daughter, the conversation focused on how ‘lovely’ she was, and how ‘lucky’ her daughter must be.
She could be charming. There was the English accent she’d never lost despite decades living in America.
Her concern with social status was all-consuming, infiltrating every aspect of our home life in the wealthy enclave of Hillsborough, California. In fact, a great deal of the misery in our household centred around my mother’s enduring attempts to turn me into a proper, upper-crust English girl.
My morning routine was fixed and began before dawn. There were violin lessons, ballet, tap, tennis, horse-riding. My mother’s relentless criticism and her unending desire to mould me into a person I never wanted to be led me to become highly anxious.
I’d make lists of the times she wounded me. For example ignoring my screams when I had searing earache (later found to be a nearly ruptured eardrum) because we had guests; throwing my dolls’ house across a room; her face contorted with rage, violently overturning a glass coffee table, over another slight.
When I was ten, she told me she should have been famous, like Elizabeth Taylor or Albert Einstein, but it had all been taken from her. The look in her eyes frightened me.
Sometimes I secretly wished my mother had hit me or cut me with a knife. A single bruise or scar would suffice, giving me the evidence that, when I consciously shunned her as an adult, it wouldn’t be all my fault.
I never cut off all contact, and we were never estranged in the typical sense of the word. But we may as well have been.
I was living in Nashville in my 20s when I got a letter from her. She wanted to tell me about her early life in London as a foundling.
It was an old-fashioned word – not one I’d ever heard uttered in our household. Instead of piquing my curiosity, it aroused my suspicions. It had always been understood that her past was off-limits. To bring up the subject was to risk a swift rebuke – or, worse, a retreat, my mother disappearing into her bedroom and emerging hours later, eyes red and swollen.
Justine discovered her mother had been raised in the Foundling Hospital under the name of Dorothy Soames
I was dogged by the fear that whatever she now had to say would somehow be used against me.
‘It’s too late,’ I told her.
Years later, I opened my letter-box to find a large, mustard-yellow envelope in my mother’s meticulous handwriting. It contained her memoir, 50 pages long, bound in a spiral fastener with a plastic cover and titled Coram Girl.
A note to me read: ‘I’m grateful and proud that despite my bad parenting, you managed to become a remarkable person.’
It was the only time she had explicitly acknowledged her role in our troubled relationship. She wanted absolution, in the hope that I would forgive her, maybe even love her.
That was something I simply was not prepared to do. I tucked the envelope away in the back of a filing cabinet, the manuscript unread.
That remained the case until after my mother died and 20 years after that first letter, I went to Europe with the man who had recently become my husband.
On London’s streets, my mother’s voice haunted me, fading only when we landed back in the States.
When I returned home, I began my search for Dorothy Soames.
Switching on my computer, I searched for ‘foundling, London’. And right at the top of the page were the words that would take me back across the Atlantic to find the answers to questions I didn’t yet know I had.
The Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children, or the Foundling Hospital, as it was commonly called, was established by a shipbuilder named Thomas Coram and granted a Royal charter by George II in 1739. Its stated mission was to care for ‘helpless infants daily exposed to destruction’.
At the time, the disgrace of an unwanted pregnancy was so ruinous that women turned to infanticide, tossing dead or dying babies into open sewers, or throwing them on piles of rubbish. Others were left to fend for themselves.
If they survived, they were relegated to lives of begging, theft and prostitution – lives immortalised by the likes of William Hogarth. But Britain was expanding its Empire, engaged in global wars, and needed a steady supply of servants and soldiers.
Dorothy, aged 12, the day after she was reclaimed from the home for 'foundlings'- unwanted children
Author Justine is pictured at the same age of 12 as her mother when she was reclaimed
Caring for so-called ‘foundlings’ – unwanted children – Coram maintained, was no mere charitable act, but could supply the government with what it needed.
It led him to become one of England’s greatest philanthropists. But in saving the children, he made a devil’s bargain, committing them 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.
More than 250 years later, the institution still exists in London, though now it’s known simply as Coram, in honour of its founder. It no longer houses children. Instead, it is an adoption agency, providing services to vulnerable youngsters.
But these changes came too late for my mother. A reply to an email from me confirmed what I suspected: my mother had been raised in the Foundling Hospital under the name of Dorothy Soames. If I wanted to know more, I would have to visit in person.
Some months later, I did.
I was led into a room with a folder several inches thick, which included a bundle of letters dating back to the 1930s. On some, I could make out the signature ‘Lena Weston’.
My stomach churned. Weston was my mother’s maiden name, but I had never heard her mention anyone named Lena.
For most of the hospital’s history, admissions were limited to children who were personally handed over by a parent, following a rigorous process of review. For Lena Weston, who I learnt had been my grandmother, it took eight weeks.
The files chronicled the sequence of events that had brought Lena to the Foundling Hospital’s doorstep.
In February 1931, she was in her 30s, unmarried and living with her brother Harry on a farm in Shropshire. With only the steady rhythm of daily chores and Sunday sermons to fill the solitude of her days, Lena’s chances at finding intimacy, tenderness and love would have been few to non-existent.
Unlike single men, who were simply ‘sowing wild oats’ when they engaged in sex outside marriage, a woman who dared to seek companionship in the arms of a lover would be labelled promiscuous and shunned from proper society.
Lena could have resigned herself to her fate: a life of solitude, endless days on a farm tucked away in the countryside, with only her brother to keep her company.
But that is not what happened.
One day, after selling eggs at market, Lena had settled herself for her customary cup of tea at a cafe in the town of Wellington. It was there she met him. The moment would change the course of her life, and the lives of generations to come. The affair was brief, and the repercussions swift.
After a bitter quarrel, her brother kicked her out, forcing her to make her way to London in search of institutional support. Single and pregnant, Lena had few options. She waited out her pregnancy in a workhouse and gave birth at Dulwich Hospital on January 1, 1932. Then, she wrote to the Foundling Hospital asking them to take her child.
As well as providing a home for illegitimate children, the institution served an arguably more important purpose: restoring a ‘fallen woman’ to her former standing. Once a baby had been admitted, its mother could rest easy, knowing the child’s existence would be a closely guarded secret. The hospital’s clerk entered the name of the mother and the sex and age of the child in a register, the only record of the mother’s true identity.
The child was given a new name. At first, these were the names of distinguished public figures, to honour them – but this was abandoned when grown children began laying claims upon their namesakes, and earls and dukes were forced to defend themselves against spurious claims of descent.
On the afternoon of January 26, 1932, Lena pleaded her case alone before a committee of the wealthiest and most highly educated men she had ever encountered.
The meeting was chaired by Sir Roger Gregory, a hospital governor whose portrait now hangs in the Foundling Museum, and involved eight other men. There were reports on Lena’s character from her brother, pastor and doctor. Her written application included few details of her illicit liaison – that a man had taken ‘liberties’ with her during a walk and that this had been ‘repeated the two subsequent weeks’.
The London Metropolitan Archives contain only perfunctory minutes reflecting the committee’s decision. The notes reveal nothing of how they treated Lena, whether they expressed sympathy or judgment. But she succeeded. On Wednesday, March 2, 1932, at 10.30am, she brought her baby girl to the Hospital at 40 Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury. In return, she was asked to do only one thing – forget her daughter ever existed.
The lesson of history is unequivocal – nothing is more sacred than the bond between a mother and her child. Lena had abdicated her role as a mother, yet I felt no judgment towards her. Had she kept her child, her only certainty would have been a lifetime of hardship and scorn.
My own decision to repeatedly ignore and reject my mother in the name of self-preservation seemed almost petulant in comparison.
Finally, I took out my mother’s handwritten memoir.
The words on the yellowing pages might as well have come from a stranger. The disturbed woman who’d scrawled a name I didn’t recognise on a crumpled piece of paper was nowhere to be found.
Also missing were the aristocratic airs and closely guarded secrets that were my mother’s defining characteristics. It seemed so obvious, in hindsight.
Of course, foundlings never got to the Royal Academy of Music; they didn’t get accepted to Oxford or Cambridge; they didn’t attend college or even high school.
My mind raced to my own childhood, the endless stream of lessons and tutors, the anxiety I still felt over the smallest of failures.
Suddenly the script had flipped.
My mother hadn’t raised me in the image of her childhood, but in a warped, dystopian version of what she imagined a proper British upbringing to be. One she’d never had.
After being left with the Foundling Hospital, Dorothy – her new given name – was sent to the Kent countryside to be wet-nursed by a married woman called Louise Vanns.
This was part of a process to try to stem the tide of infant deaths. For in the early days, it was common for half of those admitted to perish. Foundlings would then return to London at the age of five, once sturdy enough to survive institutional life. By all accounts, the day of separation from foster families was horrific for children given up not once, but twice, before the age of six.
The impact of that tragic day remained seared in the memories of foundlings throughout their lifetimes.
For her part, little Dorothy lived in fear of the hospital, having been told all about it by Louise.
On arrival, children were scrubbed in a washroom, the girls’ hair cut off to the roots. Freshly shorn, Dorothy was handed a set of clothes, russet brown, a symbol of her lowly status and a constant reminder of her poverty and shame.
These garments were strangely familiar to me; like the drab, shapeless brown clothes my mother had hand-sewn for me as a child.
Her days, as she recounted them, reminded me of the stark lives of women in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale.
The children rose at 5am in the summer and 7am in winter, the minutest aspects of their daily lives dictated. Dorothy’s shared living quarters amounted to a military barrack – a long room furnished only with rows of small iron beds topped with thin mattresses.
They ate in silence, except on Christmas Day, as a treat. A girl caught talking would be moved to a special table and later caned.
Although they were taught to read, sew and write with precision, there was no homework or exams. Critical thinking and independent thought were discouraged.
Instead, they would scrub and shine the hospital’s long hallways.
Physical abuse was widespread. It was hard to know which was worse – canings yielding bruises that lasted days, or the insults and rigidity that left a lifetime’s worth of emotional scars.
My mother’s worst beating was at the hands of Miss Woodward, one of the school’s youngest instructors. Underneath her elegant veneer, she harboured a fury that rose, wild and uncontrolled, triggered by the slightest infraction or, even more frightening, with no provocation whatsoever.
As Miss Woodward berated the girls, Dorothy had muttered: ‘Oh, shut up!’ She hadn’t thought Miss Woodward would hear, but she was pushed into a nearby classroom and beaten with such fury that a purple mass of bruises remained for weeks.
The most terrifying episode came without warning.
Miss Woodward plucked Dorothy from class one day and took her to the swimming pool where she was flung towards the deep end.
Unable to swim, she thrashed helplessly, and was just able to make out Miss Woodward holding the wooden life-saving pole. She began poking Dorothy with it, pushing her under the water every time she gasped for air. Dorothy was certain she was going to die.
The next thing she remembers was lying next to the pool, dripping wet on the cold concrete.
On another occasion, she was shut away in a storage closet for hours. Hungry, she scoffed down chocolates she’d found in a tin, for which she was later beaten and branded a thief.
My mother never lost that ability to eat a box of chocolates in a single sitting – disappearing into her bedroom, getting under the covers, and devouring the treats with childlike joy.
But Dorothy did not let the Foundling Hospital break her.
When it snowed, she sneaked outside just to stamp her small feet in the powder. Sometimes she would slip out of bed and crawl through an unlocked window to gaze at the stars.
A package would arrive once or twice a year. I don’t know what the staff told her the first time she received this gift from a mysterious stranger.
Sometimes it was simple: a doll, a toy, a spool of yarn. Other times it was extravagant – a colourfully embroidered knitting bag with wooden handles or a delicate brooch.
Over time, she learned they were from her ‘real’ mother.
But I discovered that something else was being kept from Dorothy.
Lena had been regularly writing, asking about her, begging to see her daughter. The first letter had been written after only a few weeks and they continued, month after month. Replies from the Foundling Hospital simply said her little girl was ‘quite well’.
My mother’s memoir made no mention of these letters, and it occurred to me that, in all probability, she had never seen them.
In 1977, when I was 11, she visited London to see her files for herself but was told she could not access them, for ‘privacy reasons’ until she was 110!
That rule is still in place today, to protect the identity of relatives who might still be living.
I was allowed to see them only after I had provided proof that the people mentioned in the records were dead.
I can only assume my mother never knew what I discovered: reports which revealed the pressure exerted on Lena to forget her child, the dozens of letters she then sent asking about her little girl.
As I thumbed through my grandmother’s letters, I felt her love for her child in every bend and curve of her rough, inelegant, and sometimes illegible handwriting.
I wondered whether things would have been different for Dorothy had she known of their existence.
While I had diligently curated a mental list of my mother’s failings, I knew intuitively it wasn’t a broken coffee table or a smashed dolls’ house that had severed our bond irreparably. These events couldn’t explain why I recoiled from my mother’s touch, finding even the brush of her hand against mine unbearable.
It seemed more possible that the fate of our relationship had been sealed in those first few months following my birth.
Perhaps my mother, who had received no love as a child, had been unable to hold and cradle her own tiny infant in her arms. But her own mother, Lena Weston, hadn’t given up on her. She was not discouraged when the Foundling Hospital refused to let her visit, nor when her request to reclaim her daughter, as the country teetered on the brink of the Second World War, was denied.
In 1943, she received an unexpected response. Finally, they were willing to consider releasing Dorothy, then 11, into her care.
Dorothy had attempted to escape and was being allowed to rejoin Lena not because it was in her best interests but because she had become too difficult to be of value as a future servant.
The reunion came the following year. Ushered into the office of the hospital’s secretary, Dorothy froze. There stood a slender woman of medium height, wearing a tailored navy suit, a white silk blouse and a navy cloche. Her face was pale, her large blue eyes her most arresting feature.
‘How’s my little girl?’ Lena asked, placing a hand on Dorothy’s shoulder and kissing her cheek.
Dorothy blushed, never having been kissed before.
I longed to turn the page of my mother’s memoir to find out what happened next – the healing I assumed taking place after so many years of separation. I imagined the two of them by the hearth in an old farmhouse.
But the chapter I yearned for wasn’t there. The pages had been removed, with a brief note in my mother’s handwriting under the heading ‘Shropshire’: ‘Not included.’
The Foundling Hospital’s files provided little additional information about the next ten years of my mother’s life. Searching genealogy sites, I found that Lena Weston died in 1973, unmarried and alone. At the time, I was seven, my mother was 41.
I’d come across my mother standing in the hallway at that age, motionless except for her hands. She was wringing them, twisting her fingers intently, her knuckles turning white. Tears were rolling down her face.
‘Mum, tell me what’s wrong,’ I said, my voice trembling. I hadn’t seen her cry before.
‘It’s nothing to be worried about,’ she replied. ‘Someone passed away, a distant cousin, no one important.’
It would have meant something to me to know I had a grandparent, to have met her. I can only assume the two women had become estranged.
Perhaps the wounds from Dorothy’s early separation and mistreatment had been too ragged to heal for Lena. This is a possibility that fills me with a compassion I’d never felt for my mother while she was alive. How heartbreaking it must have been for Lena to lose her daughter not once, but twice.
As for me, I never became a mother. I had an intractable fear that any child of mine would reject me.
Now I understand why I grieved my mother’s death so intently. I mourned not the loss of what I once had, but what had been taken from me before I drew my first breath or took my first steps.
It is lonely to have no love for one’s mother.
While I had hoped that my feelings would change, love cannot be forced or conjured up.
Perhaps she was not the only one with wounds too deep to heal.
But in my quest to learn about my mother’s past, I realised that I had come to know somebody special. Someone I wanted to hold, to comfort and protect.
That person was a girl with a smattering of freckles and silky brown hair, feisty and courageous and, improbably, full of dreams. I had grown to love that little girl.
Her name was Dorothy Soames.
Adapted from The Secret Life Of Dorothy Soames, by Justine Cowan, published by Virago on February 4 at £20. To pre-order a copy for £17.60, including free UK delivery, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before February 7.