Today we remember how Thomas Coram, an English naval captain started the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children in 1751 in London. Shocked by the sight of abandoned newborns in the streets of London, he though this was a scandal in a the biggest and wealthiest Christian city in the world at the time. This is his story.
The oldest charities in Britain have been around for nearly nine hundred years, an example of which would be The Hospital of St Cross in Winchester which still cares for old people, started by Bishop Henry de Blois, William the Conqueror's grandson. Steeped in tradition, it still offers bread and ale to passing travellers who request it. However, the Foundling Hospital which was established today in London was the first incorporated charity, meaning it was a separate legal entity from the person or people creating it.
Thomas Coram was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England. His father is believed to have been a master mariner and he was sent to sea at age 11. He was apprenticed to a London shipwright at sixteen and commissioned to buy oak for the navy during the wars against France during the 1690s. Then he moved to Massachusetts, on the North East Coast of North America, intending to set up a shipyard. It didn’t work out and wrapping things up in a deed dated 8 December 1703, he gave 59 acres of land at Taunton, Massachusetts to be used for a schoolhouse, whenever the people should desire the establishment of the Church of England. He gave some books to form a library at St. Thomas' Church, Taunton.
Coram returned to England with his new wife and by 1720 was semi-retired, living in the shipping hamlet of Rotherhithe on the south bank of the Thames between Southwark and Deptford. He would regularly travel 4 miles into London to engage in his business interests and was frequently shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the streets, often in a dying state. As a deeply convinced Christian this agitated his conscience, and he saw this as a scandal in one of the wealthiest conurbations in the world. He began to agitate for the foundation of a foundling hospital. His first petition for the establishment of a was signed by twenty-one prominent women from aristocratic families, whose names not only lent respectability to his project, but made Coram's cause 'one of the most fashionable charities of the day. He started getting some real traction when Queen Caroline, wife of George II, became interested in the Hospital for Foundlings in Paris. However, Coram was already in his seventies, but still without financial backing, he spent his time walking around London, covering up to twelve miles each day to visit anyone of wealth and respectability.
It took him seventeen years, but at last a charter, signed by King George II, obtained for the Foundling Hospital and considerable sums were subscribed. Forming a large board of influential and wealthy individuals that included the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, he ensured both financial support and powerful influence. Handel allowed a concert performance of Messiah to benefit the foundation, and donated the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus to the hospital (see the pod of Feb 23rd). He also composed an anthem specially for a performance at the Hospital, now called the Foundling Hospital Anthem
At first the governors felt that 60 children would be the maximum limit they could admit, which led to initial restrictions on admissions, and at the beginning they also required the foundlings to be under two months old and free from disease. Mothers were encouraged to leave a distinguishing token – such as a marked coin, trinket, or scrap of fabric – as an identifier should they ever be in a position to come back and reclaim their child. The children were baptised and given a new name, often after one of the benefactors, with the first two children given the names Thomas and Eunice Coram after the captain and his wife. It was thought that a completely new start would give them the best chance of a good life. It was also important for the mothers to assure them of confidentiality so that they too could rebuild their lives.
Between 1756 and 1760 nearly 15,000 children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital. After babies had been accepted, they were sent out to be fostered by wet-nurses in the countryside until they were between three and six years old, before returning to Bloomsbury. Within the hospital itself life was strict. All children wore uniform and followed a regimented daily routine of education, exercise, diet, religion and obedience. Punishment for lack of discipline was restrained and only when authorized. The institution was designed to prepare the foundlings for an adult life as dutiful and hard-working servants, workers or soldiers. The hospital continued on the same site at Bloomsbury until 1926 when it moved outside of London