Monday, 7 July 2008

Friday 4th July - The Foundling Hospital

It has been a while since I went on one of the excellent walks organised by inHolborn, so I was looking forward to this one. Today, unusually, we met our guide Aly outside the old gates of the Hospital at the junction of Guilford Street and Lamb's Conduit Street, and then walked around into Coram's Fields and on to the Foundling Museum. The railings and the stone work here are all part of the original hospital. Mother's could leave their infants, either by passing them through the gates or leaving them anonymously in the stone bay seen below.

Entrance to the Foundling Hospital

Now for some history - The Foundling Hospital was formed by Captain Thomas Coram, a sea captain, who noticed on his return to England in the early 18th century that there were no facilities for abandoned children - you could literally step over dead and dying babies on the streets. He campaigned for twenty years for something to be done. The authorities were reluctant to do anything because they took the view that if provision was made for these children, it would increase promiscuity among the population and lead to a vast increase in children being abandoned. There was a general apathy and a puritan morality which disapproved of illegitimate children. London was far behind other European cities of the time - Rome had it's Conservatorio della Ruota, founded by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, and Venice had La Pieta, a 14th century orphanage for girls. Christ's Hospital, founded in London in 1552, had dealt with foundlings as well as legitimate orphans, but by 1676 illegitimate children were banned so there was a desperate need for somewhere to care for these children. Mortality rates were high - 74% of children died before the age of 5. In workhouses (the only other place where the children could be placed) the death rate was over 90% - they just died of neglect or disease.

Captain Thomas Coram

Finally in 1739 Thomas Coram established The Foundling Hospital for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children". He had petitioned the King on a number of occasions, and his perserverance was rewarded when a Royal Charter was granted on 17th October 1739, and subscriptions poured in. The governors met to receive the Charter at Somerset House on 20th October, and they included many of the important figures of the day. These included dukes and earls, merchant bankers, Dr. Richard Mead (the foremost physician of the day), William Hogarth (the painter) and of course Captain Coram himself.

The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 25th March 1741 into a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. I can only imagine the scenes as the mothers handed over their children, the tears and cries that must have been shed. It must have been heartrending.

A permanent site for the purpose built hospital was found in the area known as Bloomsbury Fields lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray's Inn Lane. It consisted of 56 acres of land and cost £7000, £500 of which was donated by the Earl of Salisbury whose land it had been. The Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen as a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. The western wing was finished in October 1745 and an eastern wing was added in 1752 "in order that the girls might be kept separate from the boys". It quickly became London's most popular charity.

The Foundling Hospital

In 1756 following a resolution in the House of Commons that all children should be received, and funds publically guaranteed, a flood of children poured in from country workhouses. In less than four years 14,934 children were presented. It was during this time that a vile trade among vagrants grew up. They would promise to take the children to the Hospital for a charge, only to either fail to do so or to treat the children with great cruelty. They were sometimes known as 'Coram Men'. Only 4,400 of those children lived to be apprenticed out and when the government saw the cost (£500,000) they came to the conclusion that indiscriminate admission should be abolished and they withdrew funding. Left to themselves, the Hospital adopted a system of receiving children with large amounts of money (£100 for instance) and this led to the children sometimes being reclaimed by their mothers at a later date. This practice was stopped in 1801 and a new rule that no money be received was introduced. All the children at the Hospital were those of unmarried women and they were also all first children of their mothers.

A lottery system was introuduced. Women would enter the secretary's office and putting their hand into a bag would withdraw a coloured ball. Depending on the colour of the ball, the child was either admitted or refused. The babies were baptised and given new names - they were never told their original names. Women could leave a small gift for their child, and if they wished to reclaim him or her at a later date, they had to describe the gift left. This was later replaced by a receipt system. When the child reached a certain age, they were apprenticed out to be manual labourers or admitted to the Army or Navy. Girls were placed into service. Following the tragic death of one of the girls, a Mary Clifford, who was whipped and maltreated by the midwife Elizabeth Brownrigg (1720-1767) as were all of her female apprentices, an investigation was held by the Foundling Hospital. Brownrigg was tried and convicted of murder and sentenced to hang at Tyburn. The Hospital instituted a more thorough check of prospective apprentice masters and mistresses from them on.

The Hospital was blessed with generous patrons - William Hogarth painted a portrait of Thomas Coram and donated other pictures. He encouraged his contemporaries to do the same and the hospital was the beneficiary of paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Francis Hayman. There is also a bust of Handel by Roubiliac and a picture of Christ presenting a little child by Benjamin West. This wonderful art collection can now be seen at The Foundling Museum.

We gather outside The Foundling Museum

Music was also important and George Frederic Handel frequently had The Messiah performed there, and donated a fair copy (a full score) to the Hospital. His involvement with the Hospital began on 1st May 1750 when he directed a performance of The Messiah to mark the presentation of the organ to the Chapel. This was a great success and Handel was elected a Governor. Music was deemed very beneficial to the children. In 1847 a successful juvenile band was started and the Hospital has provided many musicians to the bands of the Army and Navy.

The Foundling Hospital Chapel

In the 1920s the Hospital decided to move to a healthier location in the countryside. Originally the buildings were to be sold for university use but this fell through and they were sold to a developer called James White in 1926. His original plan to move Covent Garden Market there was successfully opposed by local residents. The original hospital building was demolished with the exception of one of two buildings and the children were moved to Redhill in Surrey and then to a new purpose built Hospital at Berkhamstead in Hertfordshire in 1935. When British Law in the 1950s moved away from institutionalisation of children to foster care and adoption, the Hospital ceased operations. The Hospital changed it's name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and later to it's current name, Coram.

So after all that history on with the walk! We were met outside the Foundling Museum by our first guide. We were then taken inside for a very brief tour- we were a very large group and it was not possible to spend more than 10-15 minutes inside. The Museum was built in the 1930s to replace the original hospital and to provide administrative space for the Foundation and to provide a museum which would continue to encourage supporters and show the background to the Hospital and retain a connection with it's past. We were shown a wonderful model of the old Hospital which was constructed in the 1920s to ensure the old building was not forgotten. I would love to have had more time to really look at this exhibit. We then saw some of the wonderful paintings, including those by Hogarth that make up part of the Museum's collection. The finest parts of the old Hospital were dismantled and erected inside the Museum building. The staircase is from the old Boys wing and the magnificent Court Room on the first floor is where the Governors would have met.

For those who are interested in tracing an ancestor who may have been at the Foundling Hospital, the records are kept at the London Metropolitan Archive up to about 1920 and more recent records are held by Coram.

The Main Entrance to the Museum

After returning downstairs we went back outside to meet our next guide, who would tell us about Coram. We stopped to admire the statue of Thomas Coram, and then moved off to

Statue of Thomas Coram

walk to Coram. The sound of children filled the air - it sounded very much like sports day!

As we walked we looked at a print of the Hospital (see below). Our guide then then told us that the boys and girls had separate wings, and were kept apart even in death. The original Mortuary we now passed was split into Boys and Girls. There were 192 children in each wing of the Hospital - two to a bed.

A print of the Foundling Hospital

The Mortuary

Next to the Mortuary stand the remains of the old Swimming Pool. Both these buildings are due for demolition, as our guide said they are of no particular architectural significance. Personally I beg to differ - two historic buildings, one of which is admittedly Victorian , but part of the very first Foundling Hospital in this country, should be considered of importance, should be listed and preserved for future generations.

The old Swimming Pool

The other buildings surrounding us are all fairly new and house the offices of Coram. Coram is a childrens' charity which develops and promotes best practice in the care of vulnerable children and their families. They work with over 6000 children, young people and families each year, transforming their lives with practical help and support. They have an Adoption Service and other Education Services to support parents and children.

One of Coram's new buildings

This was a fascinating walk, and something different, in that we were able to go into an excellent museum, albeit briefly. I believe it will be well worth another visit at a later date. Charges apply to entry. Check out their website HERE.

Tomorrow I venture on another 2 hour walk around Holborn to celebrate he London Festival of Architecture.

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