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)

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