Kali Dennett (second from the right) in rehearsals

Coram Boy: more history uncovered

Thursday 1st August 2019

We’ve discovered that one of our community choir members is descended from a Coram Hospital foundling – upon which our next play, Coram Boy, is based.

Kali Dennett – a 20 year-old account executive from Radcliffe-on-Trent – auditioned to be a part of our community production back in March. After being offered a part in the community choir, she was surprised to discover that her Great-great-grandfather was a foundling, taken in by the hospital in the 1800s.

Kali says: “At first I didn’t connect up the dots between my family history and the play itself. That’s when my mum and my Gran began divulging facts about our family history – and it’s been fascinating to find out more of the detail.”

Kali’s Great-great-grandfather – christened Alfred Owen by the Foundling Hospital – was admitted in April 1876 at just eight months old. Through her family’s research, Kali can re-tell some of what happened to Alfred and how he came to be raised at the hospital.

She continues: “Alfred was the result of a love affair – Jeannie Roberts was 24 and worked at the Royal Oak Hotel in Wales, Lowther Spencer was holidaying there whilst studying at Cambridge. By all accounts they were incredibly in love – Lowther returned to the hotel that winter, which is when Jeannie fell pregnant.”

Tragically, Lowther died of scarlet fever the following May. He never met his son – or even knew he was a father.

Kali explains: “Jeannie wrote to Lowther to explain she was pregnant, but the letter was returned unopened. That’s when she realised she had lost him. Lowther’s Mother wrote a supporting testimony confirming Jeanie’s story was true, and this supported Jeanie’s application to the hospital. We have no idea what became of Jeannie; even pages in the hotel visitor books have been destroyed from that time, so very little traces were left for us to uncover.”

Alfred Owen was raised by the Foundling Hospital and given an apprenticeship with a solicitors at the age of 15, where he stayed his whole life. It is clear he discovered some of his heritage, though, as touchingly his first child was named Robert Spencer – taking the surnames of both his biological parents.

Kali is now rehearsing for Coram Boy, which is centred on the history of the Foundling Hospital. It is being performed at Nottingham’s Albert Hall between Wednesday 7 and Saturday 10 August 2019.

She has always loved acting and has often visited the Playhouse with her family, so was keen to audition along with 300 other members of the public. She was surprised to be asked to join the choir but has been enjoying every minute:

“At first I thought it was a mistake – me, singing? Are you sure? We’ve been getting there over the months, and I’m loads more confident after being taken out of my comfort zone and trying something new.

“My family are really excited to see me perform and proud that I’m a part of it – it feels like our history has come full circle.”

Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital – London’s first home for babies whose mothers were unable to care for them themselves – 280 years ago. Mothers left a token which could be used to identify their child if they returned to reclaim them. Over the centuries, more than 25,000 children’s lives were saved. Today, Thomas Coram’s legacy continues as the children’s charity Coram offers direct, practical help and emotional support to vulnerable children, young people, and their families.

Based on the award-winning novel by Jamila Gavin, the play Coram Boy tells the tale of Aaron and his best friend Toby, who are wards of the Foundling Hospital. However, as the story unravels the boys uncover the dark underbelly of Georgian society, and the gruesome truth behind the infamous ‘Coram men’ who pretended to work for the hospital.

To see Kali and over 70 other community performers stage Coram Boy, book tickets now.