Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, London
Yesterday I finally got around to visiting the Foundling Museum. This has been on my list of places to visit for a long time and I expected to be very moved by the story it had to tell.

The Foundling Hospital owed its existence to the persistence and energy of Thomas Coram. Captain Coram was born in Lyme Regis in Dorset and he spent a lot of his early years at sea and in the American Colonies. Back in London in the 1720s he was shocked to discover how many babies were abandoned and left to live and, more often than not, die on the streets.

Thomas Coram
He began to campaign tirelessly to set up an institution where children such as these could be cared for. Since he did not have any wealthy or aristocratic connections it took him about 17 years to gain enough support and signatures to petition the monarch and in October 1739 he obtained a royal charter from George II. Thomas Coram must have been a very driven man to keep going over all those years. I do wonder how many front doors he had to knock on, gates to open and close and steps to climb, how much of London he trudged around and how many people he had to convince that this was a good idea.

When a baby was accepted for admission a token was included by the parent so that in the event they were able to reclaim their offspring the connection with the child could be proved. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of fabric or verses written on scraps of paper and some of these tokens are on display in the museum. Then the baby was renamed, baptised and shipped out to a foster home in the countryside where they would live until they were about five years old before being returned to live at the hospital. If they survived into their mid-teens they would be educated into a trade or sent into domestic service. Job done. The regime seemed fairly brutal by today's standards but it was actually quite enlightened for the time.

Coram must have eventually come to know wealthy and influential people because William Hogarth the artist was one of the first governors of the hospital and the composer George Frederic Handel also became an important benefactor. In addition to caring for over 25,000 children over several centuries the hospital also developed an important art collection and established the link between art, music and charity which continues to this day. I imagine that contemporary events like Children in Need on television are descendants of Handel's Foundling Hospital Anthem.

The Foundling Hospital's original buildings were demolished in the 1920s and part of the site is now a children's play area called Coram's Fields where adults are not allowed unless accompanied by a child. The original charity continues its work with children under the name of Coram and so the captain's legacy still lives on.


Anonymous said...

wow. so interesting! loved the playground where grown-ups not allowed unless... and how Mr. C never gave up! And just the whole notion of saving those babies... Plus, I've been to Lyme Regis. Once. Christmas 1987. A place you don't forget. Thank you, Heather! (Marta)

Heather James said...

Glad you liked it Marta. I've been into the playground once, there was one baby and about four of us adults. I've also been to Lyme Regis once - should go again. xx

Heather James said...
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