THOMAS CORAM was a sea captain and trader with a great knowledge of the American colonies where he lived for many years. On his return to England he was appalled by the sight of children abandoned and left to die. In 1739, after seventeen years of unwearying effort, he obtained a Royal Charter establishing a 'hospital for the
maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children'. The Foundling Hospital, as it became known, is
said to be the world's first incorporated charity.
Built in Lamb's Conduit Fields in Bloomsbury and completed in 1745, the Hospital soon became a
well known feature of London being patronised by royalty and the most important people of the times. William Hogarth was one of the first Governors of the Hospital, and he and his wife were foster parents.
Hogarth gave his painting of Thomas Coram to the Hospital and he and some of his friends undertook to decorate the Governors' Court Room. Many artists gave of their best works and the public display of their paintings made them realise the value of having their own exhibition galleries and this led to the founding of the Royal Academy. The collection was housed mainly in the Governors' Court Room and the Picture Gallery, and the original rooms have been recreated
at Coram Family's offices at 40 Brunswick Square,
London, where the pictures can still be seen.
Another great benefactor was Handel, who personally opened the organ he had presented to the Chapel with a special performance of Messiah. As result of the many recitals he gave over the following years, he raised over £7,000 for the Hospital, an enormous sum for those days.
(A recent estimate has put the present day equivalent to well in excess of £500,000.)
In his Will, Handel bequeathed to the Hospital a fair copy of Messiah (the 'Foundling Hospital version') and left behind a musical tradition which has continued to the present day in the Handel Concert,organised each year by Coram Family, to celebrate his birthday.
The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on Lady Day, 25th March 1741, and baptised in new or 'Hospital' names, a practice which continued until 1948. (The child was never told the identity of the mother, neither was the mother told the Hospital name of the child.)
At first the children were given the great names of history, fiction and contemporary life including Thomas Coram and Governors and their friends. However, following certain embarrassments, 'ordinary' names from a list drawn up by the Secretary were used instead. (No record has been kept of how the 'ordinary' names were selected, but it is likely that they came from street directories etc.)
Soon after admission the infant children were sent to foster mothers retained by the Hospital in country districts. These were mainly in Kent,
Surrey and Essex, particularly in the areas of East and West Peckham, Hadlow, Addlestone, Chertsey
and the Saffron Walden area of Essex, but at times as far away as Yorkshire. They remained with their foster mothers until returning to the Hospital at the age of five.
On returning from the country, the children were educated until the age of fourteen (or younger during the earlier years of the Hospital) and then apprenticed. Many of the boys joined the Army as band boys and the majority of the girls went into domestic service. In the 1920s a number of boys were 'emigrated' to Canada and Australia under the Barnardo's scheme.
From the first days the number of children being brought to the Hospital greatly exceeded the number of places available. Frequently, with each regular admission limited to 20 children, the gates were opened on 100 hopeful mothers, who in the Eighteenth Century were mostly domestic servants and daughters of humble tradesmen and farmers. Occasionally they would be from fairly
well-to-do families. To decide the admissions, a system of
balloting was used at one time.
Even so, by 1756 the Hospital had admitted a total of 1,384 children, whose keep was beyond their means. So the Governors appealed to Parliament for help
- in what was probably the first ever grant-aid application by a charity for Central Government funding
- but with dire results. In return for an annual grant of £10,000, Parliament required the Hospital to admit every child offered who was below a certain age
- at first two months and later twelve months.
Thus began the four years of 'indiscriminate admission'. Up until then the Hospital's annual intake had averaged only 100 children but, with the introduction of the new system, the Governors were obliged to accept every child brought to their door. In expectation of the likely result, a basket was placed outside the gate, in which mothers would deposit their babies and ring the bell to alert the porter. 117 children were placed in the basket on the first day and 425 in the first month, but this was just the beginning.
It was impossible to accommodate these numbers with foster parents and .in the Hospital in London and it became necessary to open Country Hospitals at Barnet, Aylesbury, Westerham, Shrewsbury, Ackworth and Chester. But still the children came. With the medical check gone, the death rate rose to more than two in three, but that was still better than that among children in many workhouses which saw the Foundling Hospital as a means to reduce the burden of Poor Law payments in their locality.
The cost grew too and by 1760 it had reached £500,000. After nearly four years of indiscriminate admission, which had seen no less than 14,934 children accepted (of whom 10,204 died), Parliament. finally called a halt, though until 1771 it continued at least some contribution towards the keep of the children who had been admitted at its suggestion. The Country Hospitals were gradually closed, Shrewsbury and Ackworth later becoming famous schools, and the number of children on the books dropped from over 6,000 to 400.
With the end of the all-comers system, the rules for admission gradually changed. A number of admissions were made on private donations ('£100 children') and the orphans of soldiers were also accepted. However, by 1836 admission was only by Petition (i.e. written application) by the mother and this was to continue largely unchanged for over 100 years. Under the rules for admission, only the first child of a single mother of good character could be accepted. The child had to be under the age of twelve months on admission and the father either could not be found or, could not be compelled to maintain his child.
The system of caring for the children changed little until 1926 when the Hospital was demolished (although the original gates and colonnades still remain around Coram's Fields, a children's playground where adults are only allowed in when accompanied by a child). The children were moved temporarily to the former St Annes School in Redhill, Surrey and then, in 1935, to a purpose built new school at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire. In 1954, when traditional institutional care of children was no longer appropriate, the school was sold to the Hertfordshire County Council and the children placed with foster parents. At the same time the name of the Foundling Hospital was changed to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children.
The Foundation continued its role as a major fostering agency until the early 1970s when, as this was duplicating local authority provision, it was decided to phase it out. The last foster children reached the age of eighteen in 1989 when, for the first time in 250 years, there were no longer any children in the Foundation's foster care.