Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Foundling Museum: the children’s story

Recently, I visited the Foundling Museum which celebrates the history of the Foundling Hospital founded in 1739 by the redoubtable sea captain, Thomas Coram, who was horrified by the sight of starving and abandoned infants on the streets of London. Without clean drinking water or a proper sewage system, the streets, particularly in the poorer districts, were filthy and disease-ridden. 75% of the children died before they were five and, amongst the poor, it was 90%.

Thomas Corum (1668-1751)

The problem was twofold: first the Elizabethan Poor Law, set up to relieve poverty at parish level, was woefully inadequate to deal with a city of over a million inhabitants. Second, contemporary social attitudes saw poverty as a sign of moral weakness and helping abandoned babies as encouraging immorality. 

In order to set up a Foundling Hospital, Coram needed a Royal Charter, as well as enough money to build, equip, and run it. It took him seventeen years of dogged persistence to get it.

The original Foundling Hospital, 1745

Coram’s story deserves a post of its own, but, as a novelist, I found myself thinking about the abandoned infants, how did they fare? What exactly happened to a baby whose mother couldn’t support it?

Under the Foundling Hospital’s early 19th century guidelines, the foundling had to be illegitimate, under two months old, and healthy. The mother must be Protestant and to have been of good character before her fall. It was felt that ‘in addition to the protection of the Child, they had an opportunity of saving the Mother from shame, and of enabling her to return to her proper Situation in life, which the acknowledgment of an illegitimate Child would prevent her from doing…’

The mother left a token, often a swatch of material, but sometimes, a coin, a bracelet, or even, in one case, a hazelnut, to identify her child if she were ever in a position to take her child back. 

Two of the tokens

The Hospital billet book noted each baby’s possessions and any distinguishing features. For example, (I have italicised the hand-written notes beside the typed clothes list) Mary Lamas, baby No. 10,125, admitted in 1758, had a ‘white sarsen ribbon’,  a cap ‘with a muslin border’, a plain biggin (a child’s cap), a forehead cloth, a gown ‘blue and white checke’ (sic), a blanket ‘bound with white ferret’ (narrow woollen tape), a neck cloth, a roller (a bandage), a waistcoat ‘diaper’  (linen cloth woven with flowers), shirt ‘Irish trimmed’ (linen), and two clouts (nappies – also ‘Irish’.) It noted that the baby was female and had been christened. Interestingly, what the billet book didn’t note that she was black.


Female Orphans by Emma Brownlow, 1860s

Every baby was given an identity disk which they wore at all times, and a new name to signify a fresh start. Some of the names chosen were questionable, to say the least; for example, Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel. The real life Warbeck and Simnel pretended to be the ill-fated Princes in the Tower. Both were caught; Simnel was pardoned and made a scullion in Henry VII’s kitchen and Warbeck was hanged - hardly role models for the unfortunate boys given their names.

Two other foundlings were named Tom Jones and Sophia Western after the hero and heroine of Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel, Tom Jones. There was also an Oliver Cromwell and a Julius Caesar. It seems as if the authorities had no objection to a little levity at the foundlings’ expense.

The Foundling Museum today. It incorporates the original Court Room, Picture Gallery and the Boys’ Staircase.

So, the child was renamed. What happened then? The babies were sent to respectable foster parents in the country and had a wet nurse until they were weaned. A lot of care was taken over this and a local reputable person kept an eye on them. In most cases, this was the nearest the child ever got to having a proper home.

When they were five, they returned to the Foundling Hospital and sent to either the boys’ wing or the girls’ wing. They were also inoculated against smallpox – very forward-thinking at the time, but practical, too. A child who had been vaccinated would be valued more when he or she went out into the world.  

The Boys’ Staircase

Their education was far in advance of what most working-class children received. Both boys and girls were taught to read and write and they learnt practical skills too, like needlework. They were expected to contribute towards the running of the Hospital – their work was on sale to visitors, for example, and older children helped to dress the little ones, did the cleaning, drew water, and tended the vegetable garden.

Their diet, comprising meat, potatoes, dairy products and bread was certainly adequate, if monotonous. Fruit and vegetables were not, at that date, considered important, so scurvy, poor eye-sight and rickets were common.

Handel by Louis François Roubiliac, 1739

But it was the inclusion of music that made the Foundling Hospital’s education special. One of the Hospital’s first patrons was the composer Handel whose annual benefit performance of The Messiah was a Society highlight. And, from the 1760s on, all musically gifted children were taught choral singing. The standard was extremely high and they gave successful benefit concerts in the chapel. Musical boys also had the opportunity to learn a brass instrument; later, many of them went into the army via regimental bands.


Subscriber’s ticket to a concert at the Foundling Hospital

The creation of the Picture Gallery became an important and elegant venue for the Hospital to entertain the aristocracy – their potential patrons. The first artist to donate a painting was William Hogarth, who gave his magnificent portrait of Thomas Coram. He also persuaded other eminent artists to donate their own paintings; and the spectacular rococo plasterwork in the Court Room was donated by the plasterer, William Wilton.


The Picture Gallery

The musical and artistic life of the Foundling Hospital ensured that it swiftly became the place to see and be seen in. Aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of the 18th century prided themselves on their Sensibility. Supporting Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital meant that they could express their finer feelings, and, at the same time, enjoy Mr Handel’s music or admire the latest works of art in the Court Room and Picture Gallery.


Court room. Note the appropriate picture, ‘Suffer Little Children’, and the plasterwork 

But what about the children? They left the Hospital at fourteen. Boys either joined the army or navy, or became apprentices. The girls mainly went into carefully vetted domestic service – no bachelor households! - though a few were apprenticed as calico printers. Foundling children had the reputation of being humble and hard-working, and were welcomed by prospective masters or employers, and inspectors followed their progress to ensure that they were treated properly. It is pleasing to note that the Hospital looked after disabled children throughout their lives.


‘Leaving for Work’ by Emma Brownlow, 1860s

However, in spite of the undoubted excellence of the Foundling Hospital’s charitable work, one cannot help feeling sorry for the children. By modern standards, their emotional needs went unrecognized. They were not encouraged to value themselves and they must have become institutionalized; they always wore the regulation uniform, for example. Still, I like to think that a spirited child could find some way to emerge with a sense of their own worth.

Nowadays, The Coram Foundation continues to work with and for children in need. To find out more, go to www.coram.org.uk

Elizabeth Hawksley  


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

What an excellent post, Elizabeth, thank you. I have read a lot about Coram and his vision but I have not yet visited the museum. By the standards of the time it was revolutionary.

Helena said...

Reading this I was struck by how difficult it must have been to find that many wet nurses for the children, especially since they lived with their foster parents until they were five. It must have been a shock for them to be taken from their homes in the country and returned to London at that age.

The whole organisation was impressive, especially given that almost all of the children would probably have died otherwise.

Incidentally, how is it known that Mary Lamas was black, when the billet book doesn't record that. Is her later life known?

Christina said...

Fantastic post, Elizabeth, very interesting! Even if the children became institutionalised, at least they had much better lives than those poor ones still living on the streets. It's nice that someone cared!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you Melinda/Sarah for your comment. I agree that the way the Foundling Hospital was run was revolutionary in many ways. The death rate amongst the babies was still high - over 40% - but a lot of that was due to the babies being in a very poor condition when they arrived and some of them had been doped with opium to keep them quiet.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you too, Helena, for your thoughtful comments. Re: finding wet nurses, I don't think that would have been too much of a problem. With so many babies dying, there would have been a lot of lactating mothers around who would have been glad of the money.

Re: Mary Lamas, The Foundling Hospital kept meticulous records for all the children and Mary's colour is mentioned later. 18th century cartoons of London life - e.g. by Cruickshank or Rowlandson, show that Black people were not uncommon in London which was one of the largest cities in the world and a major port.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree with you, Christina. Thomas Coram was a remarkable man - though not always very tactful! Still, his dogged persistence paid off. After many years of getting nowhere with the male nobility, he had the bright idea of approaching the Duchess of Somerset. Once she was aboard, things got a lot easier and supporting the Foundling Hospital became the fashionable thing to do.

Lillian Marek said...

This is a fantastic post. Thank you so much. The Foundling Hospital is one of those things that has always been in the background, and it is wonderful to find such a wealth of detail about it.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Lillian, for your kind comment. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed writing about it. The Foundling Museum is open Tues - Sat 10.00 - 1700, and Sunday 11.00 - 17.00. It is well worth a visit - and they have a very nice café, too!