A History

August 2018 9781849049429 320pp


Orphans have often been beneficiaries of charity and compassion—but society has also punished, abused and ill-treated them. Attitudes behind this maltreatment are rooted in ideas that those without parents are disruptive, malevolent, and in need of discipline. 

 Drawing on historic documents, interviews and memoirs, Jeremy Seabrook charts history’s changing and often loose definitions of ‘orphans’, and explores their many ‘makers’—from natural or man-made catastrophes to the State, charity, and other social forces that have separated children, especially the poor, from their close kin.

But this history is not only one of suffering: Orphans also reveals the uncounted millions taken in and loved by relatives, neighbours or strangers. Freed from constraints and driven by insecurity, many orphans—including Nelson Mandela, Marilyn Monroe and Steve Jobs—have led remarkable lives.


‘A stinging history of abandonment.’ — The Sunday Times

‘Full of heartrending examples of suffering.’— Spectator

‘Illuminating. . . Seabrook is a veteran writer of the left, and his work always reflects a profound commitment to social justice.’ — New Statesman

‘Seabrook gives us the voices, old and new, of those who have suffered from neglect and worse at the hand of the state and charitable organisations.’ — Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine

‘A compelling, comprehensively researched, world-wide history of orphans, past and present. The many first-hand accounts are harrowing, and Seabrook’s clear compassionate prose lets the bleak facts speak for themselves.’ — Dame Jacqueline Wilson

‘Impassioned and assertive, Seabrook’s book draws extensively on first-hand accounts from those who have been orphaned by church, state, voluntary organisations and the market as much as by death of parents. Rooted in British history, but global in its range of evidence, it scotches belief in a narrative of progress.’ — Hugh Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of Social History, University of Kent, and author of The Invention of Childhood


Jeremy Seabrook is the author of more than forty books on subjects as diverse as transnational prostitution, child labour, social class, ageing, unemployment and poverty. His most recent include Pauperland: Poverty and the Poor in Britain and The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh, which won the Bread and Roses Prize for Radical Publishing in 2016.

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