Chichester woman reveals the true story behind Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, now playing at the CFT

With Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather at Chichester Festival Theatre this week (until January 31), Chichester's Marie Stratton-Baldwin offers a fascinating insight into the real story behind it.

Hetty Feather
Hetty Feather

The CFT invites you to: “Roll up and join Hetty on her escape from the Foundling Hospital. Tremble as she faces Matron Stinking Bottomly. Thrill as she discovers the squirrel house and Tanglefield’s Travelling Circus. Gasp as she endures a night locked in the attic. Quake as she braves the scary streets of Victorian London and cheer as she overcomes all in the search to find her real mother and a true family of her own.”

Marie offers a look at the real-life inspiration…

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Hetty Feather is due to be shown at the Festival Theatre at the end of January. Jacqueline Wilson’s brilliant book tells the story about a foundling wanting to find her birth mother but does anyone know the real story of the foundling children? Read on.

Captain Thomas Coram was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset. In 1704, at the age of 52 he settled in London after having travelled to America whilst trading.

While living in Rotherhithe and regularly travelling into London for business Coram, childless, was frequently shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the streets, often in a dying state because their mothers were either drunk from gin or too poor to keep them. He began to campaign for the foundation of a foundling hospital and battled for seventeen years. He encouraged many women of rank to help by persuading them and others to support his cause. A charter was at last obtained for the Foundling Hospital with considerable sums subscribed, and the first meeting of the guardians was held at Somerset House 20 November 1739.

A piece of land was bought for £7,000 in Bloomsbury and the foundation stone of the hospital was laid 16 September 1742. The west wing was finished, and children in October 1745. Two of his most famous supporters were the artist Hogarth and composer Handel. In May 1740 Hogarth presented Coram’s portrait to the hospital. Handel’s performance of Messiah was probably the first charity concert ever and the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus was given to the hospital.

The Foundling Hospital charity continues today and is now just known as Coram, but still delivering services which transform children’s lives from the same historic site. The original site also contains a children’s play area, Coram’s Fields, which refuses entry to adults unless accompanied by children.

I am one of Coram’s children who was lucky enough to be brought up with a wonderful family in Essex. My unmarried birth mother couldn’t keep me and her family shunned her. It was like that in the fifties. Like Hetty Feather’s the mothers would give tokens or wishes for their children. My mother’s wishes for me were to live by the sea, with a family who had an interest in art and music, have animals and have brothers. She tried to keep me but realized I was better off where I was, much to my Mum’s delight. I was eventually about four when the official adoption was finalized. Sadly my adoptive parents are no longer around but my five brothers are, the eldest being now seventy five.

Thomas Coram did a lot for me and many other children, so remember when you read or go to see Hetty Feather, it’s not just a figment of Jacqueline Wilson’s imagination, it’s based on real life.

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