Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital
A bird's-eye view of the Foundling Hospital courtyard. Coloured engraving after L. P. Boitard, 1753.
1753 engraving of the Foundling Hospital building, now demolished
old map of Bloombsbury in London
1889 map of Bloombsbury, showing the Foundling Hospital
SuccessorThomas Coram Foundation for Children; Ashlyns School
FormationMarch 25, 1741; 278 years ago (1741-03-25)
FounderThomas Coram
Founded atLondon, Great Britain
Legal statusClosed
Purpose"The education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children"
Coordinates51°31′29″N 0°07′11″W / 51°31′29″N 0°07′11″W / 51.5247; -0.1197
Founding Governor
William Hogarth
George Frederic Handel

The Foundling Hospital in London, England, was founded in 1739 by the philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram. It was a children's home established for the "education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children."[1] The word "hospital" was used in a more general sense than it is today, simply indicating the institution's "hospitality" to those less fortunate. Nevertheless, one of the top priorities of the committee at the Foundling Hospital was children's health, as they combated smallpox, fevers, consumption, dysentery and even infections from everyday activities like teething that drove up mortality rates and risked epidemics.[2] With their energies focused on maintaining a disinfected environment, providing simple clothing and fare, the committee paid less attention to and spent less on developing children's education. As a result, financial problems would hound the institution for years to come, despite the growing "fashionableness" of charities like the hospital.[3]

Early history


The Foundling Hospital was first located in Hatton Garden
The same statues from the Foundling Hospital located in Hatton Garden are above the side door of the near St Andrew Holborn. Thomas Coram, founder of the Foundlings' Hospital is buried here, his remains were translated from his foundation in the 1960s.

Thomas Coram presented his first petition for the establishment of a Foundling Hospital to King George II in 1735. The petition 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.'[4] Two further petitions, with male signatories from the nobility, professional classes, gentry, and judiciary, were presented in 1737.[5] The Royal Founding Charter, signed by King George II, was presented by Coram at a distinguished gathering at 'Old' Somerset House to the Duke of Bedford in 1739.[6] It contains the aims and rules of the Hospital and the long list of founding Governors and Guardians: this includes 17 dukes, 29 earls, 6 viscounts, 20 barons, 20 baronets, 7 Privy Councillors, the Lord Mayor and 8 aldermen of the City of London; and many more besides.[7]

The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 25 March 1741, into a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. At first, no questions were asked about child or parent, but a note was made of any 'particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token' which might later be used to identify a child if reclaimed. These were often marked coins, trinkets, pieces of fabric or ribbon, playing cards, as well as verses and notes written on scraps of paper. On 16 December 1758, the Hospital Governors decided to provide receipts to anyone leaving a child making the identifying tokens unnecessary.[8] Despite this, the admission records show that tokens continued to be left.[9] Clothes were carefully recorded as another means to identify a claimed child. One entry in the record reads, "Paper on the breast, clout on the head." The applications became too numerous, and a system of balloting with red, white and black balls was adopted. Records show that between 1 January 1750 and December 1755, 2523 children were brought for admission, but only 783 taken in. Private funding was insufficient to meet public demand.[10] Between 1 June 1756 and 25 March 1760, and with financial support from parliament, the Hospital adopted a period of unrestricted entry. Admission rates soared to highs of 4000 per year.[11] By 1763 admission was by petition, requiring applicants to provide their name and circumstances.[12] Children were seldom taken after they were twelve months old, except for war orphans.[13]

On reception, children were sent to wet nurses in the countryside, where they stayed until they were about four or five years old. Due to the fact that many of these nurses lived outside of London it was necessary to involve a network of voluntary inspectors, who were the Hospital's representives.[14] Although the Hospital Governors had no specific plan for who these inspectors were, in practice it was often local clergy or gentry who performed this role.[15]

At sixteen girls were generally apprenticed as servants for four years; at fourteen, boys were apprenticed into variety of occupations, typically for seven years. There was a small benevolent fund for adults.[1]

The London hospital was preceded by the Foundling Hospital, Dublin, founded 1704, and the Foundling Hospital, Cork, founded 1737, both funded by government.[16]

The new Hospital

In September 1742, the stone of the new Hospital was laid on land acquired from the Earl of Salisbury on Lamb's Conduit Field in Bloomsbury, an undeveloped area lying north of Great Ormond Street and west of Gray's Inn Lane. 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. An eastern wing was added in 1752 "in order that the girls might be kept separate from the boys". The new Hospital was described as "the most imposing single monument erected by eighteenth century benevolence".[17]

In 1756, the House of Commons resolved that all children offered should be received, that local receiving places should be appointed all over the country, and that the funds should be publicly guaranteed. A basket was accordingly hung outside the hospital; the maximum age for admission was raised from two months to twelve, and a flood of children poured in from country workhouses. In less than four years 14,934 children were presented, and a vile trade grew up among vagrants, who sometimes became known as "Coram Men", of promising to carry children from the country to the hospital, an undertaking which they often did not perform or performed with great cruelty. Of these 15,000, only 4,400 survived to be apprenticed out. The total expense was about £500,000, which alarmed the House of Commons. After throwing out a bill which proposed to raise the necessary funds by fees from a general system of parochial registration, they came to the conclusion that the indiscriminate admission should be discontinued. The hospital, being thus thrown on its own resources, adopted a system of receiving children only with considerable sums (e.g., £100), which sometimes led to the children being reclaimed by the parent. This practice was finally stopped in 1801; and it henceforth became a fundamental rule that no money was to be received. The committee of inquiry had to be satisfied of the previous good character and present necessity of the mother, and that the father of the child had deserted both mother and child, and that the reception of the child would probably replace the mother in the course of virtue and in the way of an honest livelihood. At that time, illegitimacy carried deep stigma, especially for the mother but also for the child. All the children at the Foundling Hospital were those of unmarried women, and they were all first children of their mothers. The principle was in fact that laid down by Henry Fielding in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling: "Too true I am afraid it is that many women have become abandoned and have sunk to the last degree of vice [i.e. prostitution] by being unable to retrieve the first slip."[1]

There were some unfortunate incidents, such as the case of Elizabeth Brownrigg (1720–1767), a severely abusive Fetter Lane midwife who mercilessly whipped and otherwise maltreated her adolescent female apprentice domestic servants, leading to the death of one, Mary Clifford, from her injuries, neglect and infected wounds. After the Foundling Hospital authorities investigated, Brownrigg was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang at Tyburn. Thereafter, the Foundling Hospital instituted more thorough investigation of its prospective apprentice masters and mistresses.[18]