Founded in the 18th century, the Foundling Hospital was the first children’s home in Britain. After much campaigning, sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram opened the doors in 1739 to care for babies at risk of abandonment.
18TH CENTURY LONDON HOSPITALS
In 1700 the only medical hospitals in London were the Royal Hospitals of St Bartholomew and St Thomas. There were other hospitals for special categories, such as Bethlem for the mentally ill, or Greenwich for sailors and refugees, the Magdalen Hospital founded to rescue penitent prostitutes or the Marine Society for Educating Poor Destitute Boys.
Between 1719 and 1750, five new general hospitals were founded in London and nine in the country. These were for the sick, but the term ‘hospital’ was also used for institutions concerned with the poor or impoverished, as in the case of the Foundling Hospital. The name implied the hospitality shown to children in their care.
In the 18th century, the main provision for illegitimate babies was the parish poorhouses. From 1722 there were workhouses, but, sadly, children frequently died of neglect. Over 74% of children born in London died before they were five years old. In workhouses, the death rate increased to over 90%.
DESTITUTE LONDON STREETS
In Georgian times London was filled with the stench of horse manure, chamberpots were emptied out of windows (yes, the contents we now flush down the toilet!), plus dead dogs, cats, rats, and even horses were left to rot in the streets. And many children were abandoned by their desperate parents.
Foundlings, abandoned infants were a common feature of life in the eighteenth century. England was far behind other European countries in catering for their welfare through the provision of charitable foundations.
EUROPEAN FOUNDLING HOSPITALS
The idea of a Foundling Hospital wasn’t new as other European cities were providing better child welfare provision than Britain. From the 13th century, Rome had its Conservatorio della Ruota, founded by Pope Innocent III. And Venice had La Pietà, a 14th-century orphanage for girls.
Apathy, puritan morality, and disapproval of illegitimacy (the usual reasons for deserted children) produced inaction in Britain. The only establishment dealing with foundlings as well as legitimate orphans was Christ’s Hospital in the City of London. It was founded in 1552, but by 1676, the illegitimate were prohibited.
Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain, and shipbuilder returned from the Americas in 1722. He was shocked to see the homeless and hungry children on the streets of London as well as the abandoned dead and dying newborns. Parents who were unable to care for their babies due to poverty or illegitimacy had few options, and many chose to abandon them in the street. It is estimated that around a thousand babies a year were abandoned in London.
Some youngsters tried to earn money working as a lamp-light boy, carrying a flaming torch and showing gentleman around the dirty, dark streets, many of which were still little more than muddy country lanes.
Coram was appalled at the squalor and was determined to establish a refuge for these children. To him, it was clear there was a need for practical action to alter the fate of the city’s foundlings.
PETITIONING THE KING
Coram despaired of seeing so many poor infants dying on the streets of the capital. He spent years campaigning for something to be done to provide care and education for vulnerable children.
He decided to petition the king for a charter to create a foundling hospital supported by subscriptions to protect these children. You would have thought everyone would want to improve the lives of these poor children but, sadly, he found it impossible to gain the backing of anyone influential and he faced plenty of opposition. This was due to social attitudes to illegitimacy and fear that providing for the babies of unmarried mothers would encourage immorality. Many also believed that misfortune parents should not be supported as the children were their responsibility and not society’s.
As a man who spent much of his life at sea and had not come from an aristocratic lifestyle, Coram lacked many social graces. This offended some of the influential upper class, which didn’t help his cause. He once complained in a letter that he might as well have asked them to “putt down their breeches and present their backsides to the King and Queen.”
In 1727 King George I died, and George II took over the throne. His wife, Queen Caroline, was sympathetic to the rescue of foundlings even to the extent of writing a pamphlet on the Hospital for Foundlings in Paris, published after her death. Coram decided to enlist the support of noble and fashionable ladies after discovering the important role of women in the Paris hospital.
In 1735, he presented his first petition for a foundling hospital to King George II. It was signed by 21 prominent women from aristocratic families (known as the ’21 Ladies of Quality and Distinction’). Their names not only lent respectability to his project but made Coram’s cause ‘one of the most fashionable charities of the day.’
In 1737, there were two further petitions, with male signatories from the nobility, professional classes, gentry, and judiciary. Then in 1739, The Royal Foundling Charter, signed by King George II, was presented by Coram in November at a distinguished gathering at ‘Old’ Somerset House to the Duke of Bedford. It contained the aims and rules of the hospital and the long list of founding Governors and Guardians: this included 17 dukes, 29 earls, 6 viscounts, 20 barons, 20 baronets, 7 Privy Councillors, the Lord Mayor and 8 aldermen of the City of London.
After 17 years of relentless campaigning, being granted a Royal Charter allowed Coram to open ‘A Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.’ This Foundling Hospital would care for and educate some of London’s most vulnerable citizens. By this time, Thomas Coram was 70 years old.
Coram obtained a lease on a house in Hatton Garden that could take 30 children. On 25 March 1741, the first children were admitted to the institution’s temporary home. John Bowles was one of those 30 children, although then he was only known as child number five.
Mothers who had no way to support their children handed over their newborn babies to the Hospital, hoping to give them a better start in life. The house was full by midnight.
This charitable home was an entirely secular organization. The first of its kind, it was funded through private donations and subscriptions. Coram was supported by the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel as well as other well-known figures of the day. (Later this same year was when Handel composed Messiah.)
The Foundling Hospital was first located in Hatton Garden. Elisa.rolle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
A lot changed in 18th century Britain. In the 17th century, the British Isles were seen as backward, politically unstable, and irrelevant to the rest of Europe. No educated continental European would have bothered to read or even speak English in 1700, but by 1800, fluent English was a necessity. By 1850, Britain was the ‘Workshop of the World’, the center of the global economy, the richest, most powerful, and advanced nation on earth.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which involved the overthrow of the Catholic king, James II, and the coming to the throne of the Protestant Dutchman, William III, British foreign policy and military potential were driven by a consistent policy hostile to French expansion, both in Europe and beyond. By the time of the victory at Waterloo in 1815, Britain had become the most powerful state in Europe, the prime architect of the victory over Napoleon and ruler of large parts of India.
REASONS TO GIVE UP A CHILD
The most common reason for a mother to give up her baby was the same in the early 20th century as it was in the early 18th. A child born out of wedlock brought shame on the mother, leading to ostracisation and hardship.
There were no welfare provisions, and mothers who were given no support by their child’s father simply struggled to survive.
An abandoned baby is considered by the governors of a foundling hospital. Engraving after G.B. O’Neill.
Thomas Coram was born in 1668 in Lyme Regis in West Dorset. His mother died when he was three years old, and he was the only child in his family to survive past infancy. His family was not rich or well connected, and he received a basic education, with his early life tied to the shipbuilding industry.
When he was 11 years old, his father sent him to sea. He was later apprenticed to a shipwright before going to Boston in America in 1694 to establish a new shipyard. For the next 10 years, Coram lived in New England. As a staunch Anglican, he ran into trouble with his Puritan neighbors, and there was even an attempt on his life.
Captain Thomas Coram retired to Rotherhithe, London, after achieving success in the New World. When he returned to England with his American wife, Eunice, he was shocked to discover destitute and dying children on London’s streets. London was a much-changed city. While it had become a powerhouse of industry, invention, global trade, and wealth it was also noisy, disease-ridden, polluted and the site of desperate poverty.
Thomas Coram was a philanthropist and got involved with many charitable projects, but he called the Foundling Hospital his ‘darling project.’ Horace Walpole, in a letter to Sir Robert Walpole, the Prime Minister, described Coram as, ‘the honestest, the most disinterested, and the most knowing person about the plantations I ever talked with.’
Coram’s background was not the same as the others who got involved with the running of the Foundling Hospital. He did not hold back from expressing his views, and his plain speaking left him an outsider. In 1743 the fellow Governors de-selected him from the General Committee of the Foundling Hospital, and he was no longer able to be involved. By this time his wife had died and, as they had never had children, he was old and alone. But he was godfather to more than 20 children at the Foundling Hospital and attended christenings in the chapel.
Thomas Coram, in the foreground an infant in a basket, in the background the Foundling Hospital. Line engraving by J. Brooke, 1751, after B. Nebot, 1741.
Even in his seventies, Coram continued an unsuccessful campaign for a second Hospital as more children needed to be cared for. But by his eighties, some of the governors began to realize he had fallen on hard times. When his friend Sampson Gideon heard Coram was in financial difficulty, he organized a pension to be raised, to which the Prince of Wales contributed. Coram used the funds to rent rooms near Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square. He received the freedom of the borough in 1749 from the Mayor and Corporation of Lyme.
Thomas Coram died on 29 March 1751, aged 84. The governors organized a funeral at the Hospital chapel to recognize his many achievements, with the choirs of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in attendance.
He was buried according to his wishes on the site of the Foundling Hospital. His tomb has been at St Andrew Church Holborn since 1961, alongside the font and pulpit from the original Hospital chapel, when the Foundling Hospital closed its site in Berkhamsted.
The same statues from the Foundling Hospital located in Hatton Garden (see photo above) are over the side door of the nearby St Andrew Holborn.
Source: Elisa.rolle, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
NEW PERMANENT LOCATION
The land (56 acres) acquired was on Lamb’s Conduit Field in Bloomsbury – an undeveloped area of green fields lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray’s Inn Lane. It was bought from the Earl of Salisbury for £7000, with the Earl donating £500 of this to the Hospital.
Credit: The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: plan and elevations, with a scale and a key. Engraving by P. Fourdrinier [after T. Jacobsen, 1742]. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)The stone of the new purpose-built Hospital was laid in September 1742. The architect was Theodore Jacobsen, and he gave his services for free. He designed a plain brick building with two wings – one each for boys and girls – and a chapel built around an open courtyard. The new Hospital was described as “the most imposing single monument erected by eighteenth-century benevolence.”
The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard. Coloured engraving after Louis-Pierre Boitard, 1753. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
As you can imagine, the help that the Foundling Hospital could offer was not enough to care for all of the needy children on London’s streets. The temporary location in Hatton Garden was full with 30 children on the day of opening in 1741. While they could not take in all of the babies brought to them, the Hospital did give the children in their care a future. It was a strict institution, but the alternative isn’t worth thinking about.
As the Governors continued to plan for the new hospital, they felt that 60 children would be the maximum limit they could take. This led to restrictions on admissions, which initially included babies being required to be under two months old and free from disease.
Credit: The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: the main buildings, with numerous people in the foreground. Engraving, ca.1750. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
The hospital originally had official appointment days for receiving children. Demand was high and desperate queues formed outside the gates with more children than could possibly be accommodated.
Receiving day at the Foundling Hospital. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Published: 1883. Attribution: CC BY 4.0
A selection process had to be introduced, so on reception days where mothers drew a ball from a bag; its color deciding the fate of their child. If the ball was white, they were in; if it was black, they were rejected; and if it was red, they were put on a reserve list.
All of this was dependent on the outcome of a health check. The hospital pursued a policy of admitting only those infants that is judged to have a strong chance of survival. Acutely aware that its resources were limited, and in an age of high infant mortality, it did not feel that it was wise to do otherwise.
Records show that between 1 January 1750 and December 1755, 2523 children were brought for admission, but only 783 were taken in. Private funding was insufficient to meet public demand.
In the early years, the charity was threatened by rising costs which made closure a real possibility. The House of Commons resolved in 1756 that the Foundling Hospital could receive a grant if all children were taken in and the lottery system was stopped. The maximum age was raised from two months to one year and a flood of children poured in from country workhouses. Children were seldom taken after they were twelve months old, except for war orphans.
From 1756 to early 1760, 14,934 children were presented and a vile trade grew up among vagrants, sometimes known as “Coram Men,” who promised to carry children from the country to the hospital. Of these, only 4,000 survived to be apprenticed out.
Several new branches of the Hospital were temporarily opened to cope with the large number of children received during the period of ‘general admission’. These were based at Ackworth, Shrewsbury, Aylesbury, Barnet, Chester, and Westerham.
This was one of the most challenging periods of the organization’s history as the Governors struggled to cope with the growing number of admissions. Allowing all meant that a large number of the babies taken in died, but not before they had infected many of the healthy ones. Mortality rates in the Hospital increased to 81% compared to 45% before admission was opened up and the mortality rate of children wet nursed in the countryside doubled.
The funding from the Government proved inadequate to enable Governors to provide a reasonable level of care for such large numbers of children, so in February 1760 the grant was ended. The Hospital was unable to take many new children for some years.
By 1763 admission was by petition, requiring applicants to provide their name and circumstances. The committee of inquiry had to be satisfied with the previous good character and present necessity of the mother, and that the father of the child had deserted both mother and child. They also needed to be convinced that by taking in the child, the mother would go on to earn an honest livelihood.
Without government funding, the Hospital initially adopted a system of receiving children only with considerable donations (e.g. £100), which sometimes led to the children being reclaimed by the parent. This practise was finally stopped in 1801 and it became a fundamental rule that no money was to be received.
Credit: The Foundling Hospital, seen from Lamb’s Conduit Street. Engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
RECORD KEEPING AND RECLAIMING
From 1741 to 1799, 18,539 children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital. The mothers giving up their babies to the care of the Hospital were initially required to leave details about their birth, parentage, and history. This was so that if they were later in a position to reclaim their child, they could do so. (In practice, such reconciliations were rare as only three or four children were reclaimed each year.) These parents also left a token/keepsake to help with identification, such as a shell, ribbon, button, bead, a scrap of fabric, or a marked coin.
On 16 December 1758, the Hospital Governors decided to provide receipts to anyone leaving a child, making the identifying tokens unnecessary. Despite this, the admission records show that tokens continued to be left. Clothes were carefully recorded as another means to identify a claimed child. One entry in the record reads, “Paper on the breast, clout on the head.”
Few mothers were reunited with their children, despite records showing a large number of inquiries from mothers about their child’s welfare. Similarly, the Annual Report of 1898 states ‘many applications are received from persons anxious to adopt children, but these are not entertained’. It was not until well into the next century that significant advances were made to reform the organization, alongside changes in society’s views of unmarried mothers and an emerging understanding of child development.
Extraordinary measures were taken to preserve the anonymity of the children so that at the age of 15 if they hadn’t been reclaimed, they could leave the Hospital and start new lives without the stain of being forgotten.
All Foundling children were baptized on admission. It was thought that a completely new start would give them the best chance of a good life. Every baby was given a new name: boys were given names inspired by heroes or from the Bible; girls were given virtuous names like Hope, Faith and Charity.
The first child admitted was renamed Thomas Coram and the first girl Eunice Coram, after Captain Coram’s wife.
In 1786, Dr. Edward Jenner was in his laboratory at St. George’s Hospital Medical School in Tooting, south London trying to find a way to stop this dreadful disease. Contracting smallpox often ended in blindness and horrific scarring from the rashes and blisters. There was no cure, and 80% of children who caught it died.
Dr. Jenner noticed that dairymaids rarely caught smallpox. He took the fluid from a cowpox pustule on a dairymaid’s hand and injected it into an eight-year-old boy called James Phipps. He waited for six weeks and then exposed the boy to smallpox. Fortunately, James did not catch the disease because he had developed an immunity to smallpox, so Jenner’s plan had worked. This was the first-ever vaccine in the whole world, and smallpox has now been completely eradicated worldwide. Jenner actually coined the term vaccine from the Latin word vacca, which means cow.
The cow responsible for the dairymaid’s cowpox infection was called Blossom and her hide hangs on the wall of the library at St. George’s Medical School.
The Foundling Hospital committee was focused on children’s health. Maintaining a disinfected environment was a priority and less attention was spent on developing children’s education. Remarkably, all babies at the Foundling Hospital were inoculated against smallpox which was an innovative healthcare program of the time.
Foundlings were only encouraged to have the humblest expectations.
On reception, children were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, where they stayed until they were about four or five years old. They were breastfed and cared for in the foster family’s own household. The wet nurse was paid and supplied with clothes for the child, and an Inspector also visited to check. There was a network of voluntary inspectors who were often local clergy or gentry who performed this role.
Once the children returned to the Hospital, they were taught to read and write and were expected to do chores. Boys were set to rope making and outdoor jobs, and girls did indoor work: sewing, spinning, cooking, and cleaning, to prepare them to go out to work.
At 16 years old, girls were generally apprenticed as servants for four years; at 14/15, boys were apprenticed into a variety of occupations, typically for seven years. Many boys enlisted for the army, often as bandsmen. (In 1913, there were 75 boys in infantry and cavalry bands serving worldwide.) There was a small benevolent fund for adults.
Going into service was not always a safe job, as some young servants were treated cruelly. Elizabeth Brownrigg (1720–1767) was a severely abusive midwife who whipped and maltreated her adolescent female apprentice domestic servants. Her actions led to the death of Mary Clifford, who died from neglect and infected wounds. After the Foundling Hospital authorities investigated, Brownrigg was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang at Tyburn. Thereafter, the Foundling Hospital instituted more thorough investigations of its prospective apprentice masters and mistresses.
Life at the Hospital was very routine. Food was meager and plain, but they did get three meals a day. It was mainly of porridge for breakfast, meat or potatoes for dinner plus vegetables from their own kitchen gardens, and bread (sometimes with cheese), for supper. Only on Charter Day (17 October) did the monotony of their meals change. Not only was this a holiday with no work for a day, but the children were given roast beef and plum pudding for their dinner. For most days, they had to eat in silence, and their Sunday dinners were often open to spectators.
This could be seen as a very dull and quite harsh existence at the Foundling Hospital, yet it compared favorably with those children in the workhouses or those who remained on the streets.
Fashionable London comes to observe Sunday lunch at the Foundling Hospital. Wood engraving by J. Swain, 1872, after H.T. Green.
After the government grant was stopped, the Foundling Hospital needed to find alternative financial support. The Hospital was founded during a time of great social and political change. It had become desirable for the wealthy and influential to be seen as philanthropic.
The Foundling Hospital grew to become a popular charity supported by many noted figures of the day in high society and the arts. Its benefactors included a number of renowned artists, thanks to one of its most influential Governors, the portrait painter, and cartoonist William Hogarth. The ‘Age of Hogarth’ was, as he commented himself, ‘a golden age of English philanthropy.’
William Hogarth (1697–1764) was a printmaker, engraver, and artist who drew lively, often comic, pictures of London street life. He was born at Bartholomew Close, the son of a poor Latin teacher. His father had opened an unsuccessful coffee shop where the customers could only speak Latin, and he went to the debtors’ prison for five years as a result. Familiar with the rougher side of life, William Hogarth drew scenes of poverty and gin drinking on London streets. His self-portrait (1745) with his pug dog hangs in Tate Britain.
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. By creating a public attraction, Hogarth turned the Hospital into one of London’s most fashionable charities as visitors flocked to view works of art and make donations. At this time, art galleries were unknown in Britain, and Hogarth’s fundraising initiative is considered to have established Britain’s first-ever public art gallery. (The first purpose-built art gallery in England was founded in 1811 in Dulwich.)
Credit: The Foundling Hospital: the interior of the Court Room, with people in eighteenth-century dress. Wood engraving. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
In May 1749 the composer George Frideric Handel, conducted a concert to raise funds for the completion of the Hospital chapel, for which he composed the ‘Foundling Hospital Anthem’. In May 1750, Handel directed a performance of Messiah to mark the presentation of the organ to the chapel. That first performance was a great success, and Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital the next day. Handel subsequently put on an annual performance of Messiah there, which helped to popularise the piece among British audiences. He bequeathed to the Hospital a fair copy (full score) of the work. George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was one of the great Georgian composers. He was German, but he loved London so much that he lived here, in Brook Street, Mayfair. The educational effects of music were found excellent, and the Hospital supplied many musicians to the best army and navy bands.
The wealthy were encouraged to view the works of art and the children at the hospital in the hope they would contribute to the charity.
The Foundling Hospital Chapel as drawn by Thomas Rowlandson & Augustus Charles Pugin for Ackermann’s Microcosm of London (1808-11)
FIRST PUBLIC ART GALLERY
Several contemporary English artists adorned the walls of the Hospital with their works including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Richard Wilson and Francis Hayman.
Hogarth donated his Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter and painted a portrait of Thomas Coram for the Hospital too.
Credit: The foundling Moses is brought to Pharoah’s daughter. Engraving by W. Hogarth and L. Sullivan, 1752, after the former, c. 1746. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Captain Thomas Coram (1740) is considered a masterpiece of British art. Coram is shown seated on a dais, with columns behind, holding the seal of the Hospital’s Royal Charter. The composition is redolent of traditional Baroque pomp, and yet Coram appears wigless and ruddy-cheeked, a direct realism that gives the portrait its human appeal. (In 18th-century London, men wore vast wigs. The higher and larger the wigs, the more important you were. Very important people were known as ‘big wigs’.)
Portrait of Captain Thomas Coram (1740) by William Hogarth
Also in the collection is Hogarth’s Great March to Finchley. The scene set in the Tottenham Court Road in the winter of 1745, where a band of Guardsman is moving off to Finchley in north London before marching further north against Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebels. The King’s Head tavern has been commandeered by the notorious brothel-keeper Mother Douglas. Hogarth sold the picture by lottery; 167 of the unsold tickets were donated to the hospital, which won the picture.
The March to Finchley: English guards, gathering before marching to Finchley to defend London from the troops of Bonnie Prince Charlie, shown in a state of confusion and indiscipline. Etching by L. Sullivan after W. Hogarth.
Another noteworthy piece is Roubiliac’s terracotta bust of Handel. The hospital also owned several paintings illustrating life in the institution by Emma Brownlow, daughter of the Hospital’s administrator.
The Foundling Restored To Its Mother 1858 painting by Emma Brownlow depicting her father John Brownlow in the Foundling Hospital, London. Hogarth’s painting The March to Finchley is in the background. By Emma Brownlow.
Taking Leave by EmmaBrownlow (1832-1905), depicting children about to leave the Foundling Hospital to take up apprenticeships. In the background can be seen Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter by William Hogarth and a topographical view by Richard Wilson
The artists involved with the Hospital were made Governors in recognition of their generosity and started to meet there on an annual basis. Exhibitions of pictures at the Foundling Hospital, which were organized by the Dilettante Society, led to the formation of the Royal Academy in 1768.
The Foundling Hospital art collection can today be seen at the Foundling Museum in the upstairs Georgian paneled rooms.
In 1801, the Governors changed the objective of caring for exposed and deserted children to that of caring for illegitimate children. They were admitted only if their mothers made a sufficiently strong case for their ability to make a new start in life. The children still went to foster mothers during their early years, returning to London for schooling at the hospital and moving on to apprenticeships.
The Foundling Hospital: the main buildings seen from within the grounds. Engraving by Elizabeth Byrne after J. P. Neale, 1816.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Much of Hospital life continued comparatively unchanged, despite attempts to reform aspects of the governance of the institution. While some children asked to stay in touch with their birth mothers, the Governors decided that this was “incompatible” with the founding principles of the organization. At that time, illegitimacy carried a deep stigma, especially for the mother but also for the child. All the children at the Foundling Hospital were those of unmarried women, and they were all first children of their mothers.
1889 map of Bloomsbury in London, from Charles Booth’s Descriptive map of London poverty.
In the 1840s, Charles Dickens lived in Doughty Street, near the Foundling Hospital, and rented a pew in the chapel. The foundlings inspired characters in his novels including the apprentice Tattycoram in Little Dorrit, and Walter Wilding the foundling in No Thoroughfare. In Received a Blank Child, published in Household Words in March 1853, Dickens writes about two foundlings, numbers 20,563 and 20,564, the title referring to the words “received a [blank] child” on the form filled out when a foundling was accepted at the Hospital.
MOVE TO THE COUNTRY
When the Foundling Museum opened in the 1740s, the site was in green fields with clean air. But by the 1920s, the unhealthy atmosphere of the area, caused partly by the coming of the railways and pollution, forced the Hospital to move to a healthier location in the countryside.
Credit: The Foundling Hospital, seen from Lamb’s Conduit Street. Etching by W. Monk, 1914. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
A proposal to turn the buildings over for university use fell through, and they were eventually sold to a property developer called James White in 1926. He hoped to transfer Covent Garden Market to the site, but the local residents successfully opposed that plan. In the end, the original Hospital building was demolished.
The children were moved to Redhill, Surrey, where an old convent was used to lodge them. Around 300 children moved from Redhill to the new school in Berkhamsted in July 1935, with a grand opening ceremony led by the school band and Messiah played on the organ that had been Handel’s gift to the original London Hospital.
The new purpose-built Foundling Hospital in Berkhamsted was closely modeled on the original Hospital. It featured some of the original furniture, including the pulpit, stained glass windows, and old oak staircases. However, the large building was divided into separate dormitories each for 25 children, and the school had a concert hall, dining room, swimming pool and gymnasium. It was made up of a central chapel with two wings on either side – the boys’ school and the girls’ school.
Until the 1940s, when psychologist John Bowlby looked at the damaging impact of taking children from their families and putting them in institutions, there was little research into the emotional impact of separation on children.
Following the 1948 Children Act, British law moved away from the institutionalization of children toward more family-oriented solutions, such as adoption and foster care. The Act made it clear that it was the duty of local authorities to receive into care any child who was without parents or whose parents could not care for him for any reason if it was in the interest of the child’s welfare. The residential Foundling Hospital in Berkhamsted ceased most of its operations, and some children were taken back by birth mothers.
In 1951, Hertfordshire County Council took responsibility for the educational element of the Hospital, and the Berkhamsted buildings were renamed Ashlyns School. The Foundling Hospital changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and currently uses the working name Coram. The Coram Foundation phased out boarders in 1955 when the Foundation sold the buildings to the County Council.
From 1741, when the first babies were admitted, to 1954, when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated around 25,000 children.
Ashlyns School is Grade II listed and has been the location for several film and award-winning television productions, including The Crown. The wealth of architectural features, including the stained glass windows in the Chapel, the staircase in the entrance hall, and the carved fireplace in the old Board Room, all came from the original London Hospital.
Although the London site was sold and many buildings demolished, the Hospital itself bought back 2.5 acres of land in 1937. A new headquarters was built on the site, along with a children’s center. Although smaller, the building is in a similar style to the original Foundling Hospital and important aspects of the interior architecture were recreated there. It now houses the Foundling Museum, which opened in 2004 as an independent charity where the art collection can be seen.
Brunswick Square, named after Queen Caroline, the unloved wife of George IV, was laid out in 1800. The Museum at 40 Brunswick Square incorporates many architectural features from the original 18th-century building. On the ground floor, the Museum tells the history of the Foundling Hospital and the thousands of children who were cared for. The nationally important collection of 18th-century paintings, sculpture, furniture and interiors is displayed on the first floor. The top floor is dedicated to Handel and has the world’s largest privately amassed collection of Handel memorabilia. And down in the basement is a temporary exhibition space which is always worth checking out. You can take an online virtual tour of the Museum to have a look around. Children might enjoy the family ‘Hetty Feather’ trail.
A voluntary committee of Children’s Playcentres was formed to preserve some of the original site as public open space. Seven acres of it were purchased for use as a children’s playground with financial support from the newspaper proprietor Lord Rothermere. Today known as Coram’s Fields, it is a seven-acre children’s park where no adult is allowed unless accompanied by a child. It’s a wonderful central London playground and very popular with families.
The original charity still exists as Coram, registered under the name Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. Dating itself back to the establishment of the Foundling Museum in 1739, Coram is the UK’s oldest children’s charity. Its Foundling Hospital Archive is held at London Metropolitan Archives and reveals the details of the lives of the children in its care and the way in which the Hospital operated from the eighteenth century onwards. The collection includes petition letters from mothers seeking entry for their children, billet books containing fabric tokens they left behind, and the details of the lives of children in the charity’s care since the 18th century.
Do look for the Tracey Emin artwork outside the front on the railings (yes, that mitten!)
The Foundling Hospital kept meticulous records of every child who passed through the institution. Coram offers a birth records information and counseling service to former Foundling pupils and their descendants and to those placed for adoption by Coram.
There is a Zooniverse online project that needs volunteers to help transcribe the records of Coram. Have a look at Voices Through Time: The Story of Care if you would like to get involved.
A few streets away, look down as the pavement is embedded with replica foundling tokens. It is a permanent public art installation called ‘Tokens’ by John Aldus and appeared in 2010.