My Search for a Foundling’s Identity

There’s searching and there’s researching. Searching may require a lot of research, unless you ‘win the lottery’ when your DNA and your birthmother’s DNA match  immediately, as one lucky gal recently shared on Facebook.  I remember the day I decided to research my maternal great-grandfather, James Thurnall. On my family tree, he appeared to have no generations before him. I needed to search for James to learn his family history.

Ancestry found him, and I quickly discovered how our lives were similar. James’s name appeared on a class list when he was ten years old, living in the London Foundling Hospital (LFH) in 1880. A foundling is a child who has been abandoned or relinquished. The LFH was actually a children’s home for foundlings. Now I was on a mission to find out why James Thurnall was a foundling. All the records from the hospital are kept at the London Metropolitan Archives. For a reasonable fee, they located James’s records in the archives and mailed copies of everything to me! 

James’s mother, Mary Anne Wingfield, was seventeen when he was born. One of eleven children in a very poor family, she was employed as a housemaid. James’s father, Charles Davis, worked at the same estate. Having promised to marry Mary Anne, Charles fled to Australia soon after James’s birth. Mary Anne had no way to support her baby. She turned to the Foundling Hospital for help.

The large envelope I received from the London Metropolitan Archives included INSTRUCTIONS and a complete copy of Mary Anne Wingfield’s PETITION to relinquish her baby to the LFH. There were handwritten references from her employer, parish minister, and family doctor.  James Twiddy, a Governor at the LFH, wrote a detailed statement of support. The cover letter to my packet explained what the committee was looking for. “The Foundling Hospital would only care for illegitimate children when their mother made a sufficiently strong case for her ability to make a new start in life.” Mary Anne succeeded—her PETITION was accepted. At three months, baby Charles Davis, named after his father, entered the LFH. He was baptized and renamed James Thurnall. At the age of fourteen,  James left the LFH and was apprenticed to a “hairdresser to be instructed in his business.”

James’s mother and my birthmother were unwed and without the means to support themselves and their infants. Mary Anne relinquished James to the LFH. I was relinquished to foster care and then adopted by my family. Both of us received an education, got married, and had children of our own! Similar paths in so many ways.

With the addition of James’s family, my family tree has grown. And when I search my AncestryDNA for the surnames Wingfield and Davis, I get many matches. Identity is both complex and sacred!

Domine Nos Dirige
 “Lord, direct (guide) us”

London Metropolitan Archives
(logo on my cover letter)

Completing the Triangle

In my childhood, my mom and dad and I rarely mentioned my birthparents. My closed adoption was a non-issue—accepted and understood on the deepest level of our love for one another. There was no adoption triangle—there was a child and her parents. The words adoption and adoptive were not heard because they didn’t really apply to us. As an adult, I was surprised to learn the term, adoption triangle. In my eyes, life essentially began when my parents took me home, almost eight months after my birth. The circumstances of my birth and those first eight months seemed insignificant to me until my late teens. I had some catching up to do!

What used to be insignificant became very significant. As a young mom, I decided to search for the missing side of the triangle. Searching for my birthmother soon expanded beyond a search for her name and character traits and details about her family. I started to think about her pregnancy with me, who supported her during my birth, our time together, and then our separation from each other. The adoption triangle became a new reality for me—my mom and dad, my birthmother, and me.

She and her parents made an adoption plan. It’s one thing to have a plan to hand your baby over to someone else—it’s another thing to follow through with that plan. The more I learned about her, the more difficulty I had understanding how she could give me to someone else and why it had to be that way. I didn’t feel angry or abandoned—I simply didn’t understand. 

My enlightenment evolved over quite a long time. I listened to the voices of birthmothers—in books, film, blogs, online groups, and friends and relatives. I felt the shame, the searing disapproval from family, and a culture that labeled unwed mothers as unfit for motherhood and their babies as illegitimate. Separations were traumatizing! The effects often lasting a lifetime. However, it became clear that my birthmother’s adoption plan for me was her only option. There were no alternatives. I believe that without support from her family and community, she did her best. Eventually, I understood her decision. 

In childhood, my parents and I were solidly linked. Then I learned that my birthmother and I were the first link. The adoption plan completed the triangle.

January 1970 Our Rehearsal Dinner

“I Got You Babe”
Sonny and Cher 
lyrics by Sonny Bono 1965


They say we’re young and we don’t know
We won’t find out until we grow


Well I don’t know if all that’s true
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Babe


I got you babe
I got you babe

“I Got You Babe”
Sonny and Cher 
lyrics by Sonny Bono 1965

A Jigsaw Puzzle!

Believe me, I was absolutely thrilled to receive non-identifying information about my birthmother and family for the first time back in 1983. I think I soon had it all memorized.  She liked to knit and read and ice skate and roller skate. She was 19 when I was born. She carried me to full term and I was “a normal healthy baby.” Having had no information, this was a dream come true. It was stunning to know the file existed—I had actually been born! It’s true that adoptees have strange thoughts compared to everyone else. 

It wasn’t long before I wanted more. They had piqued my curiosity and there was no turning back! Parent Finders of Montreal guided me. With every letter from the adoption agency, I wrote back with more questions. Interestingly, the agency kept sending me small bits of non-identifying information. I always wondered why I didn’t receive it all in the first place. This is when I formed the image—the agency folks had the lid from the jigsaw puzzle box! They had all the answers, both identifying and non-identifying. They were also sworn to obey the Quebec laws and never divulge identifying information to an adoptee. Maybe they suspected I would keep coming back for more. And not wanting to run out, they chose to give me small bits and pieces over time. I do believe they had strategies!

I had strategies too. On top of being curious, I was usually patient and almost always grateful for everything they were doing for me. I learned early on that they made mistakes. For example, she had a sister named Frances. The agency confused Frances with Francis and told me she had another brother. I was offended when they referred to my mom and dad as my adoptive parents. They were, in fact, my only parents. The agency apologized and said they were happy for me. (And, yes, I do understand why they said adoptive.) As my search continued, I examined each and every puzzle piece they sent. I was on the case—hoping for a mistake that might be a valuable clue to my birthmother’s identity.

My St. Patrick’s Day Greeting Card

That was Then…This is Now

We all know how dramatically technology has changed our lives. Was anyone smart enough to predict the present day, widespread use of smart phones? Many people actually prefer text messaging to talking on the phone. In 1983, I began my search for my birthmother. We had one home phone and one television. I sent handwritten letters to the adoption agency, government offices, newspaper, and search angels. I checked out adoption books from our neighborhood public library. Long distance phone calls were very important, but also expensive back then. Eventually, I had an Apple IIe computer—definitely an improvement over our old typewriter. We lived in Buffalo, NY. When I finally had unlocked a few crucial clues to my birthmother’s identity, my husband and I drove up to the Toronto Reference Library to read microfilms for final answers. That was then…

This is now! The Apple IIe has been replaced with various computers and laptops over the years. We still have a landline, but texting on my smart phone and relying on its GPS and camera are now a part of everyday life. I have newspaper archives at my fingertips, messaging on Facebook, I can share old and current photos, and create family trees online. AncestryDNA, 23andMe, My Heritage, and FamilyTreeDNA are just a few of the DNA testing companies today! AncestryDNA began selling test kits in 2012–a little saliva mailed back the old fashioned way and six-eight weeks later, your genetic identity pops up in your electronic mail—email! Mind boggling! My first close DNA match was with a first cousin, Marc. Our match was a turning point for both of us—two adoptees from Verdun, Montreal! The DNA results indicated our birthfathers were brothers. We became search angels for each other—friends for life.

There are a couple of variables in searching that have not changed over the decades. In many states and Canadian provinces, adoptee files remain sealed. Where it is lawful to learn your birthparents’ name(s), the adoption agency or government wait times can be painfully frustrating. Another unchanged variable is that the adoption agencies or government still make mistakes. Some mistakes provide excellent clues for which we are grateful! Other errors contain misinformation and can take a long time to unravel. The last unchanged variable is curiosity. Adoptees may experience disappointments in their searches, but curiosity brings us back to the search until we have our answers.

My grandfather was an amateur photographer. He’s caught me here curiously eyeing something!