Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both seems like carelessness”  remarks Lady Bracknell in a famous bon mot in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (1895). But many children in Victorian England did lose both – and through no fault of their own.

The Foundling Hospital in London was set up in 1741 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. On his frequent walks through the City on winter mornings, the affluent Coram was appalled at the sight of dead and dying babies abandoned on the streets. This tragedy spurred him into action. He established a home for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children”, the first of whom were admitted to a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. At first, no questions were asked about child or parent, but a “foundling token” was put on each child by the parent. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, or verses written on scraps of paper. Clothes, if any, were carefully recorded.

In September 1742, the stone of a new Hospital was laid in the area known as Bloomsbury, north of Great Ormond Street where today’s renowned Children’s Hospital stands. It was designed as a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. The west wing was finished in October 1745. An east wing was later added “in order that the girls might be kept separate from the boys”. The new Hospital was described as “the most imposing single monument erected by 18th century benevolence” and became London’s most popular charity.

A musical service at the Foundling Hospital, originally sung by blind children, was made fashionable by the generosity of the composer George Frideric Handel (left). On 1 May 1750 Handel directed a performance of his oratorio Messiah there to celebrate the presentation of an organ to the chapel. Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital, and in his will he bequeathed a score and parts of Messiah, which can be seen today in the Gerald Coke Handel Collection in the Foundling Museum.

There is a connection between the Hospital and the eminent painters of the reign of George II. An exhibition of pictures at the Foundling Hospital, organized by the Dilettante Society, led to the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768. The painter and printmaker William Hogarth, who was childless, had a long association with the Hospital and was a founding Governor. He designed the children’s uniforms and the coat of arms, and he and his wife Jane fostered foundling children. Hogarth also decided to set up a permanent art exhibition in the new buildings, encouraging other artists to produce work for the hospital.

The Foundling Hospital Collection now spans four centuries and contains paintings, sculpture, prints, manuscripts, furniture, clocks, photographs and ephemera. Some of the most poignant items are the foundling tokens. These were pinned by mothers to their baby’s clothes and upon entry the Hospital would attach them to the child’s record of admission. As foundling babies were given new names, these tokens helped ensure correct identification, should a parent ever return to claim their child. Most did not.

Thomas Coram (1668-1751) was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset. He spent much of his early life at sea and in the American colonies. From 1694 to 1705, he operated a ship building business at Taunton, Massachusetts. In middle age and on returning to England from America, he found himself in London, assailed by the spectacle of extreme poverty fuelled by the gin craze memorably recorded by William Hogarth in his print Gin Lane (1751). In the 1730s 11.2 million gallons of spirits were consumed in London in just one year – roughly seven gallons per adult. Thomas Coram devoted the rest of his life to improving living conditions for children of the poor, especially those unfortunate souls whose mothers, through poverty and gin, had mislaid them.

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