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Help find Foundling ‘mothers’

The search is on for the women who were instrumental in Thomas Coram setting up the Foundling Hospital

22 February, 2018 — By Jane Clinton

The Duchess of Harold. Photo: National Portrait Gallery

SHE was just 18 and in the first throes of motherhood tending to a new baby. Yet the simple act of putting her name to paper meant Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset, kickstarted a movement that would help save generations of vulnerable children from poverty and almost certain death.

Her signature was inscribed on a petition to create a foundling hospital for orphans and it was the breakthrough that the mariner-turned-philanthropist, Thomas Coram, had been seeking for a decade.

He had spent those past 10 years tirelessly knocking on the doors of the great and good (men) to ask for their support to deal with the huge numbers of abandoned children on the streets of Georgian London.

Not one would sign.

“It perhaps had the whiff of scandal and illegitimacy about it,” explains Caro Howell, director of the Foundling Museum of the original 1735 petition. “Which makes it all the more impressive that Charlotte, who was just 18, put her name to the cause. It had the potential to be perhaps damaging to her good name.”

Once Charlotte signed, 20 more “ladies of distinction” followed and put their name to the petition. Soon these forward-thinking women were joined by their husbands and their husband’s friends.

In 1739 The Foundling Hospital was given the Royal Charter and the first children were admitted in 1741.

It became the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery whose supporters included Handel and Hogarth.

A grand display of the male governors of the hospital has taken pride of place in the Museum’s Picture Gallery.

But what about those 21 trailblazing women?

Thomas Coram’s list of trailblazing females

Their names have survived (just) scribbled on a tiny piece of paper in Coram’s own hand. Their pioneering action has gone unrecognised for nearly 300 years.

A forthcoming exhibition, Ladies of Quality & Distinction, now hopes to bring these women into the spotlight.

Working with a researcher the museum hopes to locate portraits of these women and hang them in the place where those of the male governors of the Foundling Hospital have hung for so long.

There is much detective work involved and some portraits have remained elusive, including the rather fetching image of the Countess of Harold, of which only a photograph of the portrait has been found so far.

The museum has, however, tracked down many of the portraits. It has launched an Art Happens crowdfunding campaign in partnership with Art Fund to raise £20,000 to help with the transportation of these portraits, which are scattered around the country. The fund is just past half way of reaching its target but needs to raise the full amount by midnight on March 5 otherwise the museum will not receive any of the money raised.

An exhibition of these pioneering women is planned for September and is one of the museum’s ways of marking the 100th anniversary of female suffrage.

There is also First Among Equals, which runs until January next year. Women who have achieved a first in their field of expertise have selected an artefact from the museums that resonates with them and written a response to it.

And what of the Foundling Hospital? After 215 years of operation, and 25,000 children passing through its doors, it closed in 1954.

Today, the Foundling Hospital continues as the children’s charity, Coram, whose aim is to improve the lives of the UK’s most vulnerable children and young people.

“We hope in this anniversary year of female suffrage that the exhibition will bring these extraordinary women of “quality and distinction” back into the picture and help them gain the recognition they so rightly deserve,” adds Howell.

Ladies of Quality & Distinction at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, runs from September 21 until January 13, 2019. Tel: 020 78413600; www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk/visit
The Art Happens crowdfunding campaign is at www.artfund.org/ladies-of-quality


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