Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Foundling Hospital

Sir Thomas Coram by William Hogarth

In the continuing story of the eighteenth century, the research never stops. The more you know, the more there is to discover.
I’ve recently been working on edits on the last The Shaws book, due out at the end of the year. I had to research the orphanages for this one.
Most of us have heard about Thomas Coram. This old sea dog founded the most famous orphanage, or “foundling hospital” of the eighteenth century. He was helped by his friend the artist William Hogarth, who painted one of his best portraits of Thomas Coram.
It became fashionable to support foundling hospitals. Poor mothers would arrive and leave their children, so they weren’t always orphans. The mothers would leave a token with the child, in case she was in a position to pick the child up later on. But these tokens – a tiny embroidered scrap of fabric, a coin, a cheap piece of jewellery—were usually taken away from the child and stored separately.
Records were taken, of the child, its age, and in time, the foundling hospital would find a job for the child, a useful and legal occupation. It was a worthy thing to do, especially when undertaken by someone as philanthropic as Coram.
Tokens left with children at the Foundling Hospital
But not all foundling hospitals were made the same. Some were little better than thieves’ kitchens. In Oliver Twist, a couple of generations later, Dickens describes Fagin and his band of little pickpockets. Although this was a Victorian phenomenon, it might has well have been Georgian, for these places existed then, as well. They weren’t all good places. Children could be trained to do the dangerous work of theiving and burglary, then, if they were caught, the hospital would disown them.
However, many of the foundling hospitals were run by philanthropic individuals, and collected donations from the rich and influential. A politician’s reputation could be enhanced by such charitable giving, and a lady was considered gracious, and she had the cosy feeling of doing good.
Very few actually visited the places regularly and became involved in the running of the place. A board of governors would meet and discuss the place. Again, Dickens describes these well, although his orphanage was in fact a poorhouse, the inevitable development, when the state took over running many of these.
It’s a sad story.
Coram’s is now open to the public, together with the sad and pathetic tokens left with those poor children.
It wasn’t always so good in the good old days.

Lynne Connolly


Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I really enjoyed this post, Lynne. Thomas Coram was a man ahead of his time in thinking that abandoned children, probably illegitimate, should have a proper chance in life. Many possible sponsors refused to help him at first, lest they be thought to be encouraging immorality, almost as if bastardy was contagious.

Those pathetic tokens left by the children's mothers, bring a lump to the throat.

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