Foundling Museum Visit

On November 11th, 19 members of the Family History group visited the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square. The museum commemorates the history of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram in the mid-1700s to care for the babies abandoned on the streets of London.

Thomas Coram, a native of Lyme Regis, was a self-made man, who was sent to sea at the age of 11, before being apprenticed to a shipwright. At the age of 25 he travelled to Boston, USA, where he established his own ship-building business. He apparently fell foul of the locals and returned to England, settling in Rotherhithe around 1720.

He was appalled by the poverty and the number of babies abandoned in the streets (as many as 1,000 a year) and, although childless himself, was determined to do something about it, a task which occupied him for the next 20 years. His notebook in the museum lists the notable people of the day that he visited to gain financial support for his venture, culminating in the grant of a Royal Charter for the establishment of the Foundling Hospital. The Hospital buildings no longer exist, but some of their contents and some of the Georgian administration rooms have been reconstructed in the museum.

Our guide at the museum, Joy Levene, gave us a fascinating insight into the functioning of the hospital. Children, often only weeks old, would be admitted and then put out to foster parents until they reached the age of 5, when they would be returned to the hospital until the age of 10 or 11. During this time they would be cared for and educated so that they could be sent out as apprentices to learn a trade, enabling them to become self-supporting members of the community. Many of the boys were destined for the navy or the army, while the girls would go into domestic service, dress-making or millinery.

Initially, admission to the Hospital was simple. If the child appeared healthy it would be taken in. In the early days admissions were around 100 a year, but this figure soon mushroomed out of control so a lottery system was introduced as the fairest way to allocate the places available. Mothers hoping to have their baby admitted had to pick a coloured ball from a bag. A white ball meant acceptance, a red ball placed the child on a reserve list, while a black ball meant total refusal.

Once admitted, the baby was given an admission number and a new name, followed by baptism the next Sunday. (Thus generating a real problem for family researchers!). Often mothers left “tokens” with their babies. These could be items of jewellery, coins, written notes or, in the poorest cases, scraps of material. Some of these tokens are displayed in the museum and are a touching reminder of the hardship and pain these mothers must have suffered. These tokens were always meticulously noted on the admission card, so that should the parents’ situation change the child could be reclaimed. Sadly, this very seldom happened.

From the time of its foundation the Hospital received the support of the great and the good of the day, including the artist Hogarth, the composer Handel and eminent doctors such as Richard Mead and Sir Hans Sloane. The museum contains many works of art from the original hospital buildings and Joy Levene introduced us to many subtle details in some of Hogarth’s most famous works such as “Gin Lane”, which pointed up the social conditions of the day and perhaps served as an appeal to the conscience to elicit charitable donations from his contemporaries. Although no longer a functioning hospital, the charity founded by Thomas Coram is still working in the fields of fostering, adoption and training of disadvantaged young people.

Following the guided tour of the museum some of us spent time re-visiting areas of interest, while others took advantage of being in London on Armistice Day to visit the Poppy Field at the Tower Of London. Our thanks to Pat Butcher who organised the trip and made sure that we were all at the right places at the right time!

Christopher Rudd