London Stories. Tomas Coram, the man who saved the children: discovering the Foundling Museum

Marco Crescenzi | November, 27th 2014

In the 1700s London was a filthy city where 3 out of 4 children died under the age of five.
Sanitation was simply unheard of and the gap between the rich and the poor was extremely wide. In Public Houses, which later became known as “pubs”, gin became very popular with Britain’s working class. Gin-drinking became widespread and alcohol abuse one of the major issues in town, as William Hogarth’s famous print Gin Lane’ depicts very well.
History has given us examples of people who did great things thanks to an apple fallen from a tree, and people who achieved great results by tripping on an abandoned child in the street. This is exactly what happened to Thomas Coram (1668-1751), founder of the Foundling Hospital, which is said to be the world’s first incorporated charity that offered hospitality to unwanted children.
In the 18th century, welfare in London was based on the so-called English Poor Laws. A system of poor relief that can be traced back to the reign of Elizabeth I and which was administered at a local level by Anglican parishes. Many able-bodied poor were accommodated in Workhouses where child mortality rate reached 90%. Resources for the poor were scarce even at the time and only available at a local level within the community.

Thomas Coram went back to London at the age of 36 after having become a successful merchant in the American colonies. Coram was a maternal orphan and being appalled by the many abandoned, homeless children living in the streets of London, he dreamed of establishing a Hospital (which can also be defined as “husel for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children”, in English) to help unwanted children. The first challenge he had to face was to convince King George II to grant him support. He had to face strong aristocratic resistance as most abandoned kids were illegitimate children and their mothers were prostitutes who were treated extremely harshly by society. In 1722 he finally had the opportunity to illustrate his project to King George II, but the King showed no interest.

Captain Coram felt incapable of dealing with such a problem on an individual basis. Instead, he started a twenty-year campaign to obtain a Royal Charter from the king but no one backed him at the beginning.
So he decided to look for support among the rich ladies of aristocracy. In 1729 the Duchess of Somerset signed Thomas’s petition to the King. Soon other rich and titled ladies signed it too. Thomas presented his petition to the king, George II. This time the king granted the Royal Charter and Thomas could start to raise money for his hospital.
At this stage, the new challenge was finding enough funds to actually build the hospital. After his advocacy campaign, Coram had to engage in a very long Fundraising Campaign. A lot more people than he had thought of were willing to back his project and in 1741 the Foundling Hospital was ready to welcome the kids.
Portraits of the mothers who brought their children to the Hospital show contrasting feelings that lived in their hearts: on one hand they were relieved because their child would finally get the chance to live in dignity and build a better future; on the other hand their expressions show the tragedy of abandonment.
On reception, children were given a new name and a new identity. Those mothers who were able to improve their lives could claim their child back. But how could they recognize their kid? A distinguishing “token” was put on each child by the parent. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, verses written on scraps of paper. This is definitely the most touching part of the Hospital’s history which is well illustrated in the Foundling Museum.
The Hospital soon had to face great expenses and Coram had to find new benefactors because his personal capital was not enough. One of the first governors of the hospital was the artist William Hogarth, a friend of Captain Coram. In 1740, Hogarth donated a portrait he had painted of Captain Coram, and he then persuaded other artists to follow his example and donate paintings to the Foundling Hospital, making it effectively, London’s first art gallery. In recognition, these artists were all made governors of the hospital. Another distinguished benefactor of the Hospital was Handel, who gave concerts in the chapel to raise money for the institution. Men of wealth and position who went to the art gallery also visited the Hospital and moved with pity by the abandoned children decided to make donations. Today, 300 years later, welcoming the donor into the heart of the activity is a strategy called “open door” which is well known to organizations such as Lega del Filo d’Oro, but unfortunately it is still underestimated by most organizations. Coram was a pioneer in this field too.
In 1948 The Children Act consolidated the role of the family in a child’s life; it led to a new approach towards parent-child relations highlighting the importance of family rather than institutions. Between its inception in 1741 and its closure in 1953 the hospital, looked after 27.000 deserted children.
Today The Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, and other Charities linked to it, work with children separated from their parents, support vulnerable families, and lobbies on policy and practice issues in childcare through its various services, such as Adoption, Housing and Support. Teachers and staff make learning fun and memorable, capturing children’s imagination through activities involving music and art in order to continue along the path traced by Hendel and Hogart. Moreover, specially trained educators deliver programmes that spread awareness on issues such as drugs and alcohol abuse (gin is no longer the only problem today); it provides a free national Child Law Advice Line and an international consultancy. About a million children are, nowadays, involved in the project.
Thomas Coram died at the age of 83, poor, having donated his entire personal patrimony to his dream and “his” children.
Today, social initiatives in the non-profit sector involve “old methods” very similar to those introduced by Coram and high technological methods, which are also very interesting and fascinating.
The Coram Foundling Museum gives us the opportunity to learn about the moving story of one of the first examples of philanthropy guiding us through a unique cultural and emotional experience, which should become a must for anyone visiting London.

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