Background History

About 300 years ago Thomas Coram left his home in Dorset and set off to make his fortune. He spent many years in America working as a shipbuilder and sea captain. He was a clever man with lots of energy and worked hard to build his business. He married, but he and his wife were not lucky enough to have any children. When they returned to England Captain Coram continued to run his business for a while at Rotherhithe on the River Thames. But his attention was now occupied by another matter, which is the reason that he is remembered today.

Captain Coram was horrified to see that many babies were left to die on the streets of London because their parents could not afford to feed them. And even in the workhouses, where they were supposed to be looked after, most of the children died of cruelty and starvation. The miserable lives of the abandoned children of London touched him so deeply that he spent the next 17 years trying to find a way to help them.

He decided to open a home where these children would be properly cared for, as there was in other cities of Europe. Captain Coram knew many rich and famous people and persuaded them to help him do this. Finally, in 1739, the King gave Captain Coram and his friends a Royal Charter, which meant that they could start to look after children in a house in Hatton Garden.

After a while there were so many children that the Governors, the people in charge, decided to build a new and bigger home. They bought the land called Lamb's Conduit Fields, which was then in the countryside, and in only a few years the magnificent building called the Foundling Hospital was completed. (Children who were abandoned were called foundlings and a hospital was a place where people were looked after, not just when they were ill.)

The Governors of the Foundling Hospital enjoyed the arts and music and wanted the Hospital to be a place of culture. They felt that in this way not only would the children be civilised by having fine things around them, but also well-off people like themselves would take an interest in the Hospital. However, they felt it would be wrong to use money that had been raised to save children to buy paintings to decorate the rooms.

Thomas Coram's friend and one of the first Governors was the famous artist William Hogarth. He gave three of his own paintings, some of the best he ever painted, to the Hospital and urged many other well-known artists and sculptors to do likewise. Before long the Hospital had a fine collection of paintings and other works of art. Musicians too made a contribution. George Frederick Handel directed the first performance of his work The Messiah in a concert in the Hospital's Chapel, which raised the great sum of 728.

The Foundling Hospital became a fashionable place for wealthy people to visit. They would drive out of London in their coaches to attend services in the Chapel, where they looked down from the gallery on the foundling children in their smart uniforms, viewed the paintings and had a party with their friends. They enjoyed themselves and felt they were doing good at the same time. At that time there were very few other places in London where artists' work was on show to the public. The art exhibitions were so popular and successful that a group of artists decided to find a space to display their own work. This became the Royal Academy.

In 1926 the Governors decided to demolish the splendid building and move the children's home out of London. Only the colonnades remain in what is now the children's playground called Coram's Fields. The two grandest rooms, the Court Room where the Governors held their meetings and the Picture Gallery, were taken apart and then moved to this building, which is now called Coram Family.

All the paintings and other works of art have been given, in many cases by the artists themselves, in order to help the work of caring for the children of London. Many of the paintings are portraits of Governors and other people involved with the Hospital. Other paintings are about children, particularly children who were abandoned, like Moses.

A particularly touching part of the display is the collection of tokens, the little objects that mothers were asked to leave with their babies in case they needed to identify them later. These little tokens of love made by ordinary people are as precious to the Foundation today as the fine works by famous artists.