The Newham foster child who overcame tragedy

Herbert John Ransom

Herbert John Ransom - Credit: Archant

While the British Empire had mastery of the seas, control of world trade and one of the wealthiest societies in human history, growing up still wasn’t easy.

Group portrait of children outside a Barnardo home
Picture: Wellcome Library, London

Group portrait of children outside a Barnardo home Picture: Wellcome Library, London - Credit: Archant

Herbert John Ransom, born in 1877 in Forest Gate, is a perfect example of the kind of problems that could tear families apart.

The son of wheelwright Edward Ransom and housewife Ann, he lived his first years in Derby Street quite happily with his six siblings – until disaster struck.

Herbert’s dad, Edward, died in 1883 from dropsy – swelling caused by fluid – and his mum was left almost entirely alone to raise her seven children.

“This is a really typical example of people experiencing hardship in London in those days,” Brenda Farrell, head of fostering and adoption at Barnardo’s, said.

Dr Thomas Barnardo

Dr Thomas Barnardo - Credit: Archant

“Dropsy was a very common disease to die from, and when the breadwinner died it was always hard for those left behind.”

Ann, whose own ill-health prevented her taking on much work, was maintaining her huge household with 7s a week from cleaning alongside 6s and six loaves of bread from the parish.

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Devastatingly, this was not enough to provide for eight people, and Ann was forced to ask Dr Thomas Barnardo to take in her four sons while she raised her three daughters at home.

“Herbert was moved to a foster home in Manor Park,” Brenda said. “But he became quite poorly.”

Brenda Farrell of Barnardo's

Brenda Farrell of Barnardo's - Credit: Archant

Despite being described at the time as “bright, fairly intelligent, good-tempered and obliging” as well as “in good health”, Herbert – at the age of nine – had to spend three days in the Barnardo’s infirmary.

He was just 3ft 11in and weighed less than 3st 6lb.

Later, he was sent to Godmanchester in Cambridgeshire and then Loughton before training in Stepney.

In 1890, his time at Barnardo’s came to an end, and in the 1891 census he was listed as a greengrocer’s assistant living – appropriately – in Herbert Road, Little Ilford.

“When he was 21, he got in touch with Barnardo’s again and he reported he was married with two young children,” Brenda said.

“Sadly, we later learned his wife died – leaving him, like his mother, as a single parent.”

But that wasn’t the end of Herbert – in 1901, he was listed as a bus conductor, and in 1916 he was an air mechanic in the Royal Air Force fighting in the First World War.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that before dying in 1963, at the age of 83, Herbert returned to his area of birth.

“Many of those young people came back to London and their communities after being adopted,” Brenda said.

Barnardo’s is keen to stress, however, that stories like Herbert’s aren’t merely distant events from the borough’s history.

“There are still 325 people in foster care in Newham,” Brenda said. “There is a carer shortfall across the country of 9,000 – these are people experiencing abuse and neglect and they still need help.

“The problem with Newham is housing – there aren’t many people with spare rooms to foster – but we appeal to anyone who thinks they could help to come forward.

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