It is has been a while since I got lost in the storytelling of an exhibition. The latest Foundling Museum offering is a beautiful example of the power of a great story left to us through the breadcrumbs of history.
A paper trail begins the story of a boy born in 1787 and it is a paper trail that leads us through a different world to the one we now inhabit. The exhibition is supplemented with a select number of objects, like little jewels they adorn a story of such richness. Not in terms of wealth, but experiences; a life lived in London at the turn of a century, eyes that saw the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and a body that felt the heat of the American sun in Charleston, South Carolina.
We can live the moment a mother, destitute, gives up her child to the Foundling Hospital, the moment he is given a new name and why this moniker is requested. We can trace the moment he is apprenticed and bound to his guild and unable to shake off his Foundling roots.
Apprenticeship binding book, 1802. George is recorded with the Worshipful Company of Coopers as a ‘bound apprentice’ on 2 February, 1802.
But it is not just institutional and state documents that tell George King’s story, he wrote his own life experiences, a biography that is the earliest in existence of a Foundling child and it reaches us across the centuries. George King touches us on an intensely personal level from being bullied as a confectioners apprentice to getting into fights and running away, to being swayed by a friend to join the merchant navy. Press-ganged to a life at sea he joins HMS Polyphemus and sees action at the Battle of Trafalgar. The magnificent head of Polyphemus sits and watches us in the exhibition, acknowledging all the lives it has seen come and go, a powerful sentinel on guard.
It is the weakness for the ‘grog’ that gets George into trouble, including a 14-day drinking spree around Covent Garden and Drury Lane. It is a weakness that makes the written word more human and understandable. There are moments that reveal George’s character – the respect and friendship for a Foundling Hospital school master, Robert Atchison, who taught him to read and write that sees him return, really, to all the family he has ever known.
It is a global tale of Empire as this white working class man reaches the Americas to become a teacher, it is a powerful reminder of the opportunities that literacy can afford him.
There is so much poignancy, I struggle to get past the petition of George’s mother Mary.
“She has no friend nor anyway of maintaining herself nor child.”
George would never have learnt his mother’s name.
This life is a pathway lived in a dangerous game of chance where the unlucky fall very quickly by the wayside. Chosen by lottery to enter the Foundling Hospital, surviving the Battle of Trafalgar when many died and finally chosen once again by lottery in his later years to enter the Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital.
That this working class life is so documented is incredible. Surely if he had not been one of the 9 out 100 chosen to be accepted to the Royal Naval Hospital he would never have had the time, space and financial support to have written his memoir.
George feels like a man forever seeking structure, routine and security, going from the regimen of the Foundling Hospital to a regimented life at sea and finally the routine of the Royal Naval Hospital. We can only guess the deep seated change that being a Foundling child left on him where he looked for roots and stability in the institutions of his day.
George King’s life brings so many threads of history together in a small exhibition. We are so privileged that this record exists and it is so engagingly brought to life through a brilliant collaboration with the National Maritime Museum. On show are many humble objects that you might normally pass by if in a display about the Battle of Trafalgar but in the context of George King they become vibrant messages from the past that tell the amazing story of a boy abandoned.
Fighting Talk: One man’s journey from abandonment to Trafalgar is on at the Foundling Museum from 15th October to 27th February 2022. For opening times and ticket prices please see the website – https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/
For events running during this exhibition please see the link – https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/events/fighting-talk-one-boys-journey-from-abandonment-to-trafalgar/