In the heart of Bloomsbury hidden away in one of its famous squares is the Foundling Museum. Dedicated entirely to the work and art collection of the Foundling Hospital, founded by Captain Thomas Coram in 1741. The term ‘hospital’ referred to hospitality in those days, and the Foundling Hospital aimed to provide “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” By taking illegitimate children under 12 months old and raising them to be morally upright, virtuous citizen. Illegitimate children born to single mothers in the 18th century were likely to die before their fifth birthday, so the Foundling Hospital is probably the greatest humanitarian undertaking of the century.
When the Hospital opened only children under two months old were accepted, and mothers would leave an individual token with each child: ribbon, coin, thimble, button, a copper season ticket to the Vauxhall Gardens. These would serve to identify the child if the mother returned to reclaim her abandoned offspring. The demand rose, and the age limit was raised to under 12 months, the token system was replaced and mothers were issued numbered receipts used to identify their children in case their situation changed. At the museum you can see the tragic selection of tokens left with infants, as well as an illustration of a ‘carousel’ used to hand in babes without unnecessary questions and emotion. The infants would be sent to wetnurses in the countryside until they were five, when they would return to the Hospital and undergo schooling, where they learned virtues, grammar, mathematics. From age 14 girls were sent to apprentice as servants, while boys were sent to apprentice in different trades. Private donations established a fund for girls dowries, so they could find decent husbands despite their unfortunate situation. While the system was not perfect: masters of apprentices were sometimes cruel, and the food was hardly enough for a growing child, it was a better life than a prostitute mother could provide – Thomas Coram’s undertaking saved many lives.
In fact in one year 15,000 infants were given up, and the Hospital, after a series reduction of public funds, had to introduce a significant fee to accept children. In 1801 this practice was stopped, and it became a rule that no money was to be received for accepting infants. To avoid abuse of the system, the Hospital had to ensure of the necessity of the mother, her good character, and that the father had abandoned the mother and the child. A woman could abandon only one child in her lifetime.
Famous 18th century artist William Hogarth, a man who often painted the harsh realities of London life was very involved with the Hospital, he helped to organise the choir, brought his influential friends to be swayed by the cause, and fostered children with his wife. Most notably he donated a portrait of Captian Thomas Coram to the Hospital, starting the Foundling Hospital Art Collection that saw contributions form Handel as well as other celebrated personalities of the day. The Foundling Hospital Collection includes paintings, clocks, furniture, sculpture, prints, and ephemera from the Hospital. In 1857 the Hospital created a designated Picture Room to display the growing art collection that has helped fund the Hospital until the 1950’s when orphan-care shifted toward foster-parenting.
The original Hospital building was torn down in the 1920’s when it moved to the countryside, but the museum aims to recreate many of the rooms using some of the same materials. While it is sad to see the conditions and low prospects of orphans in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is still a reassuring trip into the world of childhood and goodwill.
The Foundling Museum
Adult: £7.50/ concessions available