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The Foundling Museum - History

The Story of London's Abandoned Children


Foundling Museum, London

Foundling Museum, London

© Laura Porter (2007), licensed to About.com, Inc.

What is a Foundling?

A foundling is a child who has been abandoned and whose parents are unknown.

London’s Foundlings

Up to a thousand babies a year were abandoned in early 18th-century London. They were often left by the side of the road in the desperate hope that someone would care for them but most ended up on rubbish heaps. In 1739, Thomas Coram established a "Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children" which looked after more than 27,000 children over 3 centuries at 3 sites until its closure in 1953. The Foundling Museum tells the story of the foundlings, how they lived, and displays the many poignant objects relating to their lives at the Hospital. Mothers left tokens, such as a button or even a nut, to identify their children in the hope they could return for them in the future.

Thomas Coram (1668 – 1751)

Captain Thomas Coram campaigned for 17 years to start the Foundling Hospital. He was a pioneer in child welfare and was dedicated to finding a way to care for London's foundlings. Initially he found there was resistance to the idea of caring for abandoned children as many thought it would encourage wanton, brazen women to have more children. But when he opened the Foundling Hospital in 1739, he found most of the children came from domestic servants in central London who could not support a child. The Hospital was overwhelmed by the response from mothers and started a ballot system to decide which children they could take. Mother's picked a ball from a bag to decide the fate of their child while wealthy women would look on as if this were a spectator activity.

I learned from a Museum volunteer that Martin Folkes, the president, didn't like Coram, hence he didn't get reelected as a governor. It seems Folkes dismissed the school nurse and employed the laundry maid in this role which infuriated Coram. It later transpired that Folkes was having a relationship with this woman which is what Coram suspected but couldn't prove. My thoughts are Folkes got involved with the Foundling Hospital to enhance for his charitable reputation in London society. Yet it seems from Royal Society archives he was also a smuggler and merchant of condoms, which was kept secret to preserve his good-standing.

Thomas Coram's legacy lives on with Coram's Fields - a children's playground just around the corner from the Foundling Museum where adults are only permitted when accompanying a child.

Criteria for Admittance of a Foundling

The child must be:
  • under 12 months old
  • illegitimate
  • mother’s first child
  • from a mother of good character

In 1745, the children moved into the official buildings which were designed to appeal to the art-loving upper classes to attract their donations. A famous artist was a founding governor of the Hospital – William Hogarth.

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764)

Hogarth was not only one of the original governors, but was also involved in the day-to-day running of the Hospital. He had a childless marriage and devoted 25 years to the lives of London's abandoned children and the Foundling Hospital.

Hogarth struck on the idea of creating an art gallery at the Hospital to display contemporary artists work. There were no art galleries in England at the time and Hogarth's idea was considered groundbreaking for artists. The fellow governors supported his venture and a permanent picture gallery was established in the Hospital. Hogarth encouraged leading artists of the day to donate works to the children's home with the aim of attracting wealthy potential benefactors. In doing so, he created Britain's first public exhibition space, which became a center of artistic experimentation and led to the formation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Today the collection contains works by Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough, Wilson, Hayman, Highmore, Roubiliac, and Rysbrack, displayed in fully restored interiors – as they would have been seen by visitors to the original Hospital in the 1700s.

George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)

Handel, the world-renown composer, was also a governor. In 1750, Handel conducted the first of many performances of Messiah in the Hospital chapel.

In 1747, the area around the Foundling Hospital (Bloomsbury) was still considered countryside but by 1750, London was the largest city in the world and 1 in 5 London houses was a gin shop.

Public opinion changed on the benefit of the Foundling Hospital and in 1756, the government awarded a grant on the condition that no children would be turned away.

By the 18th century London's population had doubled and the city became too dirty a place to raise children so they were 'fostered' by wet nurses in the countryside to the age of 5 years, and then returned to the Foundling Hospital School. Upon entering school, everything was taken away from them and they were given uniforms - the boy's resembled military uniforms and the girl's resembled domestic servants, which ultimately prepared them for their pre-destined future. The children were kept till apprenticeships started at 10-11 years old. They lived an institutional life as the governors only learned about schooling and childcare through their time running the Foundling Hospital. Many of their methods would seem harsh to us nowadays but they were also pioneering by realizing the link between nutrition and health and by knowing to isolate the sick; practices that were not common at the time.

By the 1920s, the pollution in the city made it necessary to move the children to the countryside and the Hospital was moved to Berkhamsted and the original site was sold as it had become such prime real estate. Not long after, it was realized that the wealthy benefactors were not visiting the Hospital's art gallery as they did not want to travel out of town so the governors arranged to buy back some of the original site. The Hospital had been knocked down but its fittings and fixtures were salvaged and used in the new building which is now the Foundling Museum. For example, the grand staircase in the Museum was the staircase from the boy's wing of the Hospital.

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