Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Foundling Museum: London's children that nobody wanted

On a rainy Sunday, with 12,000 words of dissertation to edit, I was all too delighted when a friend asked if I fancied a wander around a museum.  We ummed and ahhed over which one to go for, keen to visit one of the city's less known museums; after several years in London we felt that we'd pretty much seen all that South Kensington had to offer.  And so we went to Bloomsbury, and visited the Foundling Museum on Coram Fields. 

Housed in a building on Brunswick Square, the Museum tells the story of the UK's first Foundling Hospital (originally built in the mid-to-late eighteenth century), established and funded by an extraordinary triumvirate; sea captain Thomas Coram, artist William Hogarth, and the composer George Frederic Handel.  The museum building contains permanent collections detailing the history of the Founding Hospital as well as some rather wonderful art and a collection of music, and even the last will and testament, of Handel.  This building never actually housed the Hospital - which instead resided within an impressive winged edifice which was sadly sold off and demolished in the late 1920s - however it does contain features from this long-gone building, such as the heavy wooden staircase winding up through the three floors of exhibitions and galleries.  (Although the metal spikes which used to run down its length to prevent 'foundlings' sliding down it have since been removed.)
The original Foundling Hospital
Foundlings were the unwanted children (usually very young, many were just babies) who were abandoned by their mothers, unable to care for them due to their impoverished or undesirable living situations.  Thomas Coram had been horrified to see these children simply dumped on the streets of London by their poor, infirm or wayward guardians, and thus established the Foundling Hospital, to provide these abandoned souls with somewhere to live.  Originally when the hospital first opened places for these poor, unwanted children were so sought after that mothers had to petition the hospital, pleading their impoverished circumstances, to be invited to bring their children in.  Once they had been admitted however their child was still not guaranteed a place.  In a large hall, among similarly desperate individuals, the mothers or petitioners would select a ball from a bag, the colour of which would determine whether their offspring was accepted, shortlisted, or denied a place at the Hospital.

Those who had been successfully secured a place were then handed over to nurses, as their mothers waved a last farewell.  The entry of these foundlings was recorded in a large book, together with a note of what their parent left them.  To identify their child, should their circumstances improve and they find themselves once more able to care for them, mothers left tokens for their children with the Hospital staff; coins, jewellery, pitiful scraps of cloth cut from their own clothes - these were all a woman could leave as identification that once upon a time she had been somebody's mother.  Their children were then given a new name and a new start.

Housed in dormitories and marched through halls (boys and girls kept firmly separate), the foundling children were fed simple, unexciting meals and received healthcare far better than they might if they had stayed with their parents.  The Foundling Hospital inoculated its pupils as standard long before such medical treatments became commonplace.  From the age of 5 or 6 the Hospital became school as well as home.  Pupils at the Hospital were given strict yet not academically taxing lessons, and taught basic skills to secure them equally basic work once they left the establishment at the age of 14 or so.  For girls this meant domestic work, and for boys, more manual skills as well as music, as many went on to join army bands.  Interestingly many pupils went on to join the armed forces, moving from one institutionalised way of life to another.

The Foundling Hospital functioned until 1954, so many of its pupils, who were still called 'foundlings' (and had to wear numbered labels around their necks proclaiming them to be so at all times), are alive today.  The stories of these final pupils have been curated into an excellent temporary exhibition in the basement of the museum, entitled "Foundling Voices".  It is one of the most profoundly moving social history projects I have ever seen.  I say 'seen', but much of the testimony is relayed in aural form, spoken by the foundlings themselves.  Reading the words and seeing the photographs of these individuals, brought up in these strange circumstances one can begin to imagine who they were and what they experienced.  Yet when you hold a small speaker to your ear and hear these people speak of their search for their biological families, and the cruel rejection that some of them faced, you understand how these wide-eyed children became all too quickly acquainted with a feeling of abandonment and an awareness of being unwanted that has stayed with them forever.  Saddest of all they discuss a common inability to bond with other people, discouraged as they were from forming close relationships with their fellow foundlings.  Brought up in this restrictive system, creativity and difference was repressed.  One foundling summed up, just what it was that made me so uncomfortable about the Hospital.
The quote above refers to an institution created to save and care for children, yet which does not seem to have valued the energy and exploration of being a child at all.  Or even of being an individual.  I confess that I found listening to the foundlings discuss how they had struggled to grow up, to develop careers and be part of their own new flesh and blood families desperately sad.  Yet Thomas Coram had created his institution to give children a life, when none looked likely.  Surely this option was better than no home at all.  It is extremely brave to take a stand and to dedicate your energy, not to mention money, to helping others.  The Foundling Hospital, and its current reincarnation as children's charity, Coram, are the proud and worthy legacy of a man who was brave enough to do so.  As with many other philanthropic efforts, there is no perfect solution to many of mankind's worst problems.  But I would rather live in a world where people still search for that solution; taking in stray animals, taking in stray children, digging wells and building schools. The time when no one can be bothered anymore will be a sad day for us all.


  1. Fascinating story, tanks for sharing!

  2. Nothing like productive procrastination! Seems like time very well spent, though.

  3. Well I certainly thought so, Westwood!

  4. So you are almost done with the essay then! I hadn't heard of this museum, I will have to have a look. It certainly looks unusual!

  5. Hello :-) I just gave you a Liebster award:

  6. Thanks Kym, will check it out. How kind of you!


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