Wednesday, 8 May 2013

The Foundling Hospital's Exhibition: Fate, Hope and Charity

Hogarth's portrait of Captain Thomas Coram
The Foundling Hospital came about through the determination of Captain Thomas Coram.
Born in Lyme Regis, England, Coram was well acquainted with the sea and much of his early life was involved with ships or shipping. But what Coram cared about was poverty, especially of those least able to help themselves - the abandoned or orphaned children he saw dying on city streets. For nearly two decades he waged a campaign to rouse the consciences of the wealthy and establish a place where such unfortunates could be raised in safety.

Aerial view of the Foundling Hospital circa 1753
In 1739,  he succeeded andKing George II granted a Royal Charter giving Coram the authority to establish:
"A hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children,"
Eventually known as the Foundling Hospital, in 1740's the hospital (the word used in a wider sense meaning 'hospitality') found a home in Bloomsbury, London.

The Foundling Museum, Brunswick Square, London.
The museum is home to artefacts and art work associated with the hospital.
Coram's intention was that parents and offspring could be reunited when the former's circumstances improved. With this aim he instituted detailed record keeping - quite a contrast to the parish parochial records.
"All persons who bring children are requested to affix on each child some particular writing or other distinguishing mark or token so that the child may be know hereafter if necessary."

A variety of tokens on exhibit at the Foundling Museum.
'Fate, Hope and Charity - the exhibition'
Click for link.
Photo the property of the Foundling Museum.
Indeed, some of these tokens are currently on display at the Foundling Museum in an exhibition: Fate, Hope and Charity. They form a moving testament to the despair that drove women to give up their babies. From scraps of fabric to gambling tokens, from delicate rings to notes written on death row, each object speaks of untold heart ache and desperation. In return for the token and her baby, the mother was issued with a detailed receipt which she was urged to keep safe:
"It is desired that it [the receipt] be carefully kept, that it may be produced if the child should at any time be claimed."

A rather well-dressed Georgian laundry maid.
Babies were given up for any number of reasons. Perhaps the most plaintive read:
"Seduc'd and reduc'd"
- perhaps written by a maid who would lose her position, and means of making a living, if her illegitimate babe was discovered. But married woman were also driven to abandonment, from the soldier's wife with nine children to support, whose husband died and left her penniless, to the woman writing in her prison cell after she was sentenced to hang.

Children hoping to be admitted Foundling Hospital.
On admittance the children were given a different name - the new one carefully recorded against the old, in case a parent later returned. The very first admitted were named after Thomas Coram and his wife, Eunice. Initially, the governors leant their names to children but this proved a mistake when those same children came of age and had mistaken hopes of high parentage. Safer, more none committal names became the vogue, such as Robin Hood, or Elizabeth Foundling. 

The imposing statue of Thomas Coram,
sited outside the Foundling Museum.
Perhaps even more upsetting are the tales of those parents who returned, years later, to reclaim their children - only to be told the babe had died shortly after admittance. One can not imagine the hope that sustained those women over the years, only to be dashed at what should have been the happiest moment. If you are within traveling distance of London, I can heartily recommend a visit to: Fate, Hope and Charity. - but hurry, the exhibition ends on May 19th! 
Forthcoming release, Verity's Lie,
in part features foundling children.

If this post has whetted your appetite, see also:


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Ella, glad you enjoyed the post - although I'm not sure 'enjoy' is the right word!
      G x

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you for visiting, Nancy, and a big thank you for spreading the word on twitter.
      Grace x

  3. Very interesting. I did research on some foundling hospitals further south, (and about 50 years later) but they were more off-shoots of the workhouses. Finding philanthropists can't have been easy.


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