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The Foundling Of Shoreditch

March 27, 2014
by Edward Waterson

Edward Waterson sent me this extraordinary story of his great-great-great-grandfather Henry Cooper, who went down in history as the man “left holding the baby”

Bishopsgate Station, photograph courtesy of National Rail Museum

This is the tale of a country doctor, a mystery woman and a baby with a fortune tucked in its nappy. It is a tale that riveted Victorian England in 1850, yet is all but forgotten today – save for its lasting contribution to the English language. Had it not been for the extraordinary events on Bishopsgate Station in Shoreditch that year, we would not have the pleasure of describing those facing an unwanted problem as being “left holding the baby.”

The doctor was Henry Cooper, a handsome thirty-six year old who ministered to the needs of his patients in the Suffolk village of Ixworth, near Bury St Edmunds.  Recently widowed and bringing up three small children on his own, he was not a man to relish disruption in his busy life.

One January morning that year, he donned his best stovepipe hat and travelled into Bury to meet his friend Captain Lloyd with whom he was journeying on the Eastern Counties Railway to London. The train left at ten minutes past eight and they soon settled into their second class carriage for the four and a half hour journey to the terminus at Shoreditch.

They passed through Colchester without incident but ten minutes later, on stopping at Mark’s Tey station, their gentlemanly calm was broken as an elegantly dressed woman stumbled into the carriage. Along with the lady came a baby girl and a small trunk. Clearly unwell and close to collapse, the child’s mother explained that she had been travelling alone in first class but, feeling ill, she had made her way to a carriage where there were other passengers. She could not have chosen better.

Cooper introduced himself and tendered his professional services. Politely declining his offer, the lady explained that her condition was solely due to being unused to travelling on the railway and that she would soon recover. Indeed, by the time the train steamed into Bishopsgate Station she had rallied considerably.

Henry again proffered help but was reassured that she had ordered a carriage and servant to wait for her at the far end of the station. It would – however – be of immense help to her if he might assist by looking after the baby while she went to check if her transport had arrived. So the surgeon gladly took the baby, while the captain stood guard over her trunk, watching their new found acquaintance run down the platform and into the square below, never to be seen again.

Henry Cooper was left holding the baby.

Bewildered by their predicament, the pair gathered up baby and trunk and took a carriage to friends in the city. By the end of the journey, it was already clear that the baby’s nappy needed changing, so the unwilling guardians opened the trunk in hope of finding a replacement. They were delighted to find not only what they were looking for but also a wardrobe of expensive children’s clothing.

Off came the nappy and out dropped two ten pound notes, the equivalent of nearly two thousand pounds today. Attached to them was a letter stating that the child came from a respectable background and that if an advertisement was placed in the newspapers, the parents would make themselves known. Cooper’s friends in London offered to act as temporary foster parents while he returned to Suffolk to attend to his patients.

In the meantime, he placed two advertisements in The Times with inconclusive results. One reply came from a friend of Cooper who was anxious to adopt the baby while another, altogether more sinister, came from a man in Devon – the baby was his and the twenty pounds too. He claimed them both on behalf of the mother and would sue if the child was not handed over.

Henry Cooper was left struggling with an uncomfortable dilemma.

On the thirteenth of February he returned to London, this time to Worship St Magistrates Court, just a stone’s throw from Bishopsgate Station. What – pleaded the unhappy recipient of the baby – did the judge advise him to do with the child?

The Magistrate, Mr Justice Hammill, said it was a very unusual application and regretted that he could be of little assistance. He could only suggest that the baby be handed over to the Officers of the Parish in whose district it had been abandoned, in the hope the parents would be discovered. Cooper knew that to take such a course would mean the workhouse for the child and in the words of The Times reporter – “it was pretty manifest from his manner that he was disinclined to adopt the suggestion thrown out by the bench.” Meanwhile, Cooper’s friend William Makepeace Thackeray composed verse in celebration of the event and such was the fame of The Foundling of Shoreditch that Punch devoted a whole page to the story, complete with a sketch of the unlikely duo.

The child escaped the workhouse and was placed in an unspecified orphanage, supported in part by her hidden legacy, only to disappear later without trace just as her mother did. Henry Cooper, the country doctor, has also long been forgotten but his legacy lives on as the archetype of the one “left holding the baby.”

Henry Cooper – “left holding the baby”

Henry Cooper and the baby portrayed in Punch, February 1850

copyright © Edward Waterson

10 Responses leave one →
  1. March 27, 2014

    What a great story, good to know what’s behind that saying. Valerie

  2. March 27, 2014

    What an amazing story – and the picture of the station is so interesting- that arcade in the front is still there? I went to Shoreditch not long ago and seem to remember it – now with cafes/shops etc on the terrace.

  3. March 27, 2014

    A very touching story, even if so long ago …!

    I found the original narrative here:

    Love & Peace

  4. March 27, 2014

    It’s a story worthy of Susan Hill isn’t it?

  5. Ron Pummell permalink
    March 27, 2014

    Nice story. Will somebody please advise me the current location of this Shoreditch station

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    March 27, 2014

    On Shoreditch High St at the junction between Bethnal Green Rd and Commercial St – where the Bishopsgaate Goodsyard is today, fragments of the outer wall of this structure may be discerned.

  7. Ellen in NEW England permalink
    March 27, 2014

    In the History of St Bartholomew the Great, compiled by that vicar in the late 19th century, there are excerpts from the parish records about pregnant young women who were “railroaded” out of the parish so that the parish would not have the financial “burden” of their bastard children. No mention of the fathers or their responsibilities.

  8. Ron Pummell permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Thank you Mr GA I will have a look next week. By the way, last night I accepted compliments on your behalf for the ‘blog’ that you wrote last year concerning the rededication of the Peter Renvoize tomb at St Matthew’s Church.

  9. Victoria permalink
    March 29, 2014

    Fascinating and puzzling, especially about the note suggesting the baby should be advertised and that the parents would come forward. I wonder if this means the young woman wasn’t the child’s mother – or that she hoped deserving potential parents would come forward; that it would be down to fate to decide. And so very strange that the child disappeared later on..

  10. Steve W permalink
    October 6, 2014

    I live in Ixworth and was only introduced to this story today by a former resident. I’m not sure that anyone living in Ixworth knows of it. Did Mr Waterson provide the painting of Henry? He obviously moved in high circles if Thackeray was his friend.

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