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‘Where did he come from?’ Lily Cole and Brontë’s famous foundling

Former model turned actor Lily Cole has directed a film that links Wuthering Heights to the Foundling Hospital

09 August, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

Lily Cole is a creative partner with the Brontë Parsonage Museum during 2018 – the bicentenary of the birth of Emily Brontë. Photo: Ruby Williams

A ROW of women sit anxiously in a corridor. Some nurse babies on their laps; others let their babies crawl along the floor.

An announcement is barked by an official and a small bag is passed around. From it each woman must pick a ball. A white ball means their baby will be taken away. A black one that the mother must return home with their offspring. A red one that their baby is on the reserve list should a selected baby be found to be sick.

When each woman sees their child’s fate there is little emotion, just resignation. Apart from one woman who cries in despair when she sees her ball is black.

It is a harrowing scene and one that features in a new film, Balls, co-written and directed by former model: the actor, activist and 2016 Foundling Fellow, Lily Cole.

A joint project with the Foundling Museum, the Brontë Parsonage, and RRU News, the film marks the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s death and recognises one of the most famous foundlings in literary history: Heathcliff from Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

Exploring the links between the Foundling Hospital story and Brontë’s novel, it also reflects on the progress of women’s rights over the past 200 years.

Drawing on the rich history of the Foundling Hospital where vulnerable children were taken in, Cole and Sarah Gadon (who plays Mary Ann Carr in the film) came up with the original story.

Set in modern-day Liverpool, Balls begins with a quote from the much-loved novel and a reference to Heathcliff who was abandoned on the streets of Liverpool: “but where did he come from, the dark little thing?”

We then watch as two women – Mary Ann Carr and Black Peggy (both real cases) – put their children up to be cared for by the Foundling Hospital.

Their efforts to have their babies adopted are meticulously documented in the Foundling Hospital archive and facsimiles of some of these documents are on display.

The pleading petitions by these women make for depressing reading where unwanted pregnancy (the result of rape in the case of Mary Ann) has left these women desperate and potentially destitute if their babies are not taken in.

Tia Bannon as Peggy in Balls. Photo: Ruby Williams

Black Peggy’s child, like Heathcliff, was born in the 18th century. The result of a seduction when she was just 14. Mary Ann, Brontë’s near contemporary, gave up her child in 1848, the year of the author’s death.

The 12-minute film leaves much to the viewer’s interpretation: the circumstances of these women outlined only in the sketchiest of terms.

In one scene John Sessions plays the main Foundling Hospital governor who subjects the women to rigorous questioning, which, if they pass lets them go on to the next stage of the balls lottery. He questions them about their circumstances, the men involved in conception and what they would do if their baby was taken in. For Mary Ann, a Sunday School attendee, it will mean she can return to her family.

For Black Peggy, she will be able to work.

We see how these women’s lives hang precariously in the balance and how their life chances, at least the little they had as women at the time, are suddenly and crudely determined by the contents of that small bag of balls.

Cole’s film came about as she is a creative partner with the Brontë Parsonage Museum during 2018, the bicentenary of the birth of Emily Brontë.

Her appointment to the Brontë Society, however, caused some controversy with author Nick Holland resigning from the society and calling her inclusions “rank farce”. He cited her supermodel status as evidence of the drive to attract a younger audience.

Cole weathered that storm and went on to co-write the Balls screenplay with Stacey Gregg. As part of the project the film is simultaneously on display at the Brontë Parsonage. It is accompanied by items from the Foundling Museum.

Similarly, items from the Parsonage are on display at the Foundling Museum. There is a sampler made by Emily Brontë as well as a sketch she made just before her 10th birthday.

The Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram, was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. He campaigned for 17 years and enlisted the help of artist Hogarth and composer Handel to realise his vision.

The first babies were admitted in 1741 and it functioned until 1954 when the last child was placed in foster care.

In all, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated some 25,000 children.
The Foundling Museum opened in Brunswick Square, near Russell Square in 2004.

In Balls, the women’s viewpoint, so often effaced or at best, incidental, takes centre stage.

Their stories and their heartache are finally given voice and the importance they have long deserved.

Balls is on display at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ until December 2. Visit or call 0207841 3600 for details.


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