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Founding fathers of 18th-century hospitality

Helen Berry’s excellent history of the Foundling Hospital inspires Peter Gruner to visit this pioneering home for abandoned children

30 May, 2019 — By Peter Gruner

Detail of William Hogarth’s 1740 portrait of Captain Thomas Coram

COMPOSER Handel conducted his world famous choral work Messiah for the financial benefit for Britain’s earliest ground-breaking orphanage in Bloomsbury.

With a bustling congregation of Georgian London’s high and mighty, the concert for the Foundling Hospital would have been the equivalent of today’s Live Aid.

An excellent new book, Orphans of Empire, by Helen Berry, traces the history of the hospital, a word used in the 18th century simply to indicate an institution’s “hospitality” to those less fortunate.

The home for abandoned and destitute children opened in 1742, and became a basis for today’s system of social care.

There is a Foundling Museum at Brunswick Square and to my shame I’d never visited it until the book inspired me to go along. It has a park, the seven-acre Coram’s Fields, on the site of the former hospital. A sign reads: “Adults may only enter if accompanied by a child.”

Berry describes throngs of tourists at Russell Square tube all heading for Covent Garden. If only they went in the opposite direction, she says, these visitors would find the Foundling Museum, and a rarely told story of extraordinary philanthropy and courage.

Berry lived originally off Holloway Road in Islington before moving North where she is head of the School of History, Classics and Archeology at Newcastle University.

“I’m not sure whether I chose the project or whether it chose me,” she says.

“I was astonished to learn that there was no formal system for adoption in England until 1926. Then I looked into the Foundling Hospital collection at the London Metropolitan Archives and was just blown away by the material – it really has a claim to being the single richest repository for the social history of Georgian London that isn’t yet digitised.”

She writes that Handel not only performed his Messiah every Easter in the hospital chapel, he also wrote the foundling anthem.

Charles Dickens, who lived in nearby Doughty Street, was spurred to campaign for infant orphans, many of whom were literally dumped on streets by parents who couldn’t afford their keep. He wrote Oliver Twist about an orphan boy, or “foundling”, as children with no parents to care for them were known.

Helen Berry

Artist and satirist William Hogarth, from Clerkenwell, became a governor of the hospital. He created Gin Lane, a painting that depicted the evils of cheap gin that caused huge social problems, and no doubt contributed to illegitimacy.

Hogarth encouraged leading artists of the day, such as Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, to donate their work to the hospital. So began the Foundling Hospital Art Collection, England’s first public gallery which attracted a daily crowd of spectators and raised valuable funds for the children. But the man who made it all possible was sea Captain Thomas Coram. On his daily commute through London he was said to be sickened by the sight of infant corpses lying on the roadside.

However, it took “no nonsense” philanthropist Coram 20 years of struggle to raise sufficient funds and support for his project, battling the kind of obstacles which would still resonate today.

Professor Berry writes about the lives of many of the children from the hospital. Life would have been tough but at least they were taught to read and write, unlike children in many of the local parishes. The governors – “distastefully paternalistic to modern eyes,” writes Berry – were powerful lobbyists who few dared to take on in the face of children’s complaints in cases of abuse and neglect.

But when children spoke out about their abuse, there is evidence that they were often believed, “something which we have dismally failed to do in more recent times”. Berry writes: “Apathy and a prevailing laissez-faire attitude characterised the ruling elite’s attitude to social problems.”

There were objections that an institution for abandoned children would “encourage idle­ness among the laboring poor,” since people would not have to work to maintain their children. It would promote immoral­ity by encouraging extramarital sex since illegitimate babies could be sent to the hospital.

Coram was interested in the work of Irish writer Jonathan Swift who was trying to shame the authorities in Dublin about child poverty. Swift joked in his “Modest Proposal” that unwanted infants could become a delicacy for the tables of the rich, thus making them “useful”.

Coram, having been given the brush off by powerful men, found enormous support from wealthy women whose philandering husbands had many illegimate children.

Writer Henry Fielding, another patron of the hospital, made his famous character, ladies’ man Tom Jones (made into a film starring the late Albert Finney) illegitimate and one of those “living monuments of sexual incontinence”

On the first night of opening 30 children were admitted, 18 boys and 12 girls. But soon there were such great numbers wanting admittance that a ballot was introduced, with mothers who picked the wrong colour ball from a bag denied access for their child.

The museum provides a collection of foundling tokens and an impressive recreation of the Hospital’s Court Room, plus several stunning Hogarth originals, including Thomas Coram’s lifesize portrait.

Orphans of Empire: The fate of London’s foundlings. By Helen Berry, Oxford University Press, £20
Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, WC1N 1AZ. foundlingmuseum.org.uk

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