By Eleanor Updale
We’ve been asked to write about a family secret that has influenced our work….
My father was born 100 years ago, into a very different world. His mother was unmarried, and so he was taken, as a baby, to the Foundling Hospital: the oldest children’s charity in the country. He lived there till he was sent out to work as a trainee electrician when he was 13. In all that time, he hardly ever handled money, went in a shop, or crossed a road. It was tough life in many ways, but in others he was lucky. Although starved of love, he received enough food to keep him healthy, and a much better education than he would have had otherwise. That education has been my springboard into the happy and comfortable life I have now.
My father talked very little about his early life, and that was because he was ashamed of his origins. He was not alone in that. At the turn of the last century, the staff at the orphanage deliberately inculcated the idea that their charges were tainted by their background. Even when I was growing up, children of unmarried parents were called ‘illegitimate”, as if their plight was their own fault. An unmarried daughter who found herself ‘in the family way’ might be sent away to have her baby. Sometimes an older sister, or the girl’s mother would pretend the child was her own, rather than face the opprobrium of the neighbours. Even to be adopted could carry a stigma.
At the Foundling Hospital every child’s name was changed when they entered. Until 1976, it was illegal for their original name to be revealed. So Edmund Updale, the name my father was given at his Foundling Hospital baptism, was the only name my father ever knew. He was never allowed to see his own birth certificate, and Updale is the surname he passed on to me.
Of course there are no photographs of my father as a child, though he is almost certainly somewhere in this picture, which shows the children of the Foundling Hospital leaving the original 18th century buildings before they were demolished in 1926.
This is one of the earliest pictures of my father as an adult, on his wedding day in 1946.
But a decade earlier, he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and this may be him. The photo comes from a group shot of Republican volunteers wearing old French World War One uniforms.
What do you think? Is it him?
I’ve recently seen some records relating to my father’s time in Spain that reveal an amazing story none of my family ever knew – but that’s something for another day.
My father died on the same day as Agatha Christie (12th January 1976). He never knew who his real parents were.
In the early 80s, I took advantage of a change in the law to find out. I’m not going to go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that the grandmother I never knew was the daughter of a publican in the City of London. She was let down by a man with the spectacular name of Abraham William Louis Gauceron Kemp. I know she went on to marry someone else, and to have a family of her own, and I don’t want to disrupt their lives by following that lead too closely. But part of Mr Kemp’s name has made it into my work, as a gentle tribute to my long-dead father. You’ll have to read the Montmorency books to find out how he fits in (and, along the way, to discover my father’s original first name, which begins with an S).
I’m rather proud of my father’s background, though it caused him such shame. I’ll also be eternally grateful to the Foundling Hospital (now the wonderful charity, Coram) for saving his life, and creating my future.
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