Captain Coram’s Foundling Museum

Hogarth's Coram

Hogarth's portrait of Captain Thomas Coram

 The Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury is one of London’s less well known. It’s been refurbished in recent years, so when I dropped in I was curious to see if it had improved from the rather uncommunicative building I’d toured 20-odd years ago. Happily it’s been a sensitive and quietly effective job, the building now feels more alive – but not swarming with resting actors in frockcoats and mob caps, never fear – and the story of the Foundling Hospital is well told.

What a story it is. The Foundling Hospital was one of the greatest products of what Hogarth called ‘the golden age of English philanthropy’, i.e. the mid-18th century, when morality and self-interest flowed together in one beneficent (if narrow) stream. The Hospital’s immediate purpose was to offer shelter, care and an education to children who would otherwise be abandoned. At that time, at least a thousand children a year (in a city of half a million souls) were abandoned in the street to die, or thrown on the rubbish dumps on the city margins. This situation so appalled the sea captain Thomas Coram, returning from America, that he resolved to do something about it. The Foundling Hospital was eventually, after many a setback, the result.

As well as being a home for children, the Hospital was an institution of high social tone, very popular with the aristocracy, and, remarkably, a centre for the arts, indeed London’s first public art gallery. Handel was a major supporter, wrote an anthem for the Hospital and bequeathed it a fair copy of The Messiah. Concerts were held, and the children were trained in music (as at Vivaldi’s La Pieta). Artists – not only English, but French and Italian – donated works. The result is that the Foundling Museum of today is a fascinating and quite unique art gallery, with works by Hogarth (of course), Gainsborough, Reynolds, Benjamin West, Richard Wilson, Roubiliac’s great bust of Handel, etc. (Not to mention a dubious portrait confidently labelled ‘William Shakespeare’.)

But the most touching and extraordinary exhibits are the unlabelled display cases of tokens left by desperate mothers with their babies as they handed them over to the care of the Hospital. Beads, trinkets, coins and half-coins, medallions, seals, labels, some inscribed, others blank – even, mystifyingly, a label from the neck of a bottle, reading ‘Ale’…

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

3 thoughts on “Captain Coram’s Foundling Museum

    September 6, 2010 at 13:46

    I like that museum, although the downstairs bit with the tokens felt faintly antiseptic. I found it hard to imagine all the children actually being there, despite that display being v poignant

    September 7, 2010 at 07:34

    Remember thinking when last there, like you Nige a couple of decades ago, what an inspiring experience it must have been for these abandoned waifs to have George Frideric fetching up on a regular basis, and how his influence steered many of them toward taking up an instrument, and going on to make a life in music – and how stark the contrast with my own childhood when music education and appreciation was, shall we say, well down the list, and today when it has almost vanished but, care-of the El Systema project in Venezuela, may be due for a rebirth.

  3. Worm
    September 7, 2010 at 08:53

    I used to visit Coram’s fields all the time but never made it here. More fool me.

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