Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital

Thomas Coram, by William Hogarth -
Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Captain Thomas Coram (c. 1668-1751) retired to Rotherhithe in 1719 after achieving success in the New World, establishing a shipwright's business in Boston, and later in Taunton, Massachusetts. 

On his frequent walks through the City on winter mornings, Coram was appalled at the sight of dead and dying babies abandoned on the streets. This inspired him to take action. In 1722, inspired by the foundling hospitals on the Continent, he advocated one for London. His idea was to petition the king (George I) for a charter to create a non-profit-making organization supported by subscriptions, but at first this met with no success. He found it impossible to gain the support of anyone influential enough to approach the king and there continued to be great opposition to the idea of a Foundling Hospital established, partly because it was considered to encourage wantonness and prostitution.

The turning point in Coram’s campaign was the ‘ladies petition’ of 1729 signed by 21 peeresses, and the patronage of Queen Caroline (the wife of George II).  His petitions came before the king in council in July 1737. Subscriptions poured in and on 17 October 1739 the King signed a Royal Charter for a hospital for the 

‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. 
The Governors and Guardians of this new enterprise met to receive the Charter on 20th November 1739 at Somerset House. The group included many of the important figures of the day: dukes and earls, magnates and merchant bankers. Supporters of standing included the physician, Dr Richard Mead, and the artist William Hogarth. 

The first children were admitted on 25th March 1741, into a temporary house in Hatton Garden. Scenes of extraordinary drama and poignancy followed as the cries of the departing mothers and children echoed through the night. 

See here for a description of the present-day collection and in particular the poignant tokens left by the mothers in the hope that they might at some stage be able to reclaim their children.

The Governors began the search for a permanent site that would house the purpose-built hospital. A solution was found in the area known as Bloomsbury Fields, the Earl of Salisbury's estate, lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray's Inn Lane. It consisted of 56 acres of land amidst green fields. The price was £7000, the Earl himself donating £500 of this to the Hospital. The first children were received on 1 October 1745. In 1750 a benefit concert of 'The Messiah' was performed there. Hogarth was both a governor and a benefactor.
The Foundling Hospital
(now demolished)
Public domain

The hospital quickly became one of the sights of London and wealthy ladies watched from behind screens as the mothers had their babies accepted or turned away. Babies had to be turned away because there were never enough places as women poured in from the provinces in order to place their children. By 1770 parliamentary grants had ceased and the hospital became a private establishment relying on voluntary subscriptions.

This newspaper advertisement from Felix Farley's Bristol Journal shows how the charity had reached the provinces by the middle of the eighteenth century.

19 May 1759: ‘This is to give notice that MARY CHAMBERS…late midwife to St Peter’s Hospital, carries or sends every week (as usual) CHILDREN to the Foundling-Hospital in London. At Two Guineas and a Half each – All Letters (Post Paid) will be duly answered. CERTIFICATES are given at the Hospital for every Child.

No comments:

Post a Comment