The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 for ‘the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’. It was, extraordinarily, the first such institution in Great Britain, though the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti (designed by Brunelleschi) had been founded in 1419 and the famous Ospedale della Pietà in Venice (where Vivaldi taught, conducted and composed) was active in the fourteenth century.
Its founder, and the foundlings’ champion, was the remarkable and redoubtable Thomas Coram (1668–1751). Little is known about his early years, but he was from Dorset, of a merchant family, and first went to sea at the age of eleven. In his mid twenties he was employed by a group of London merchants to develop a new shipyard in Boston, Mass., but the venture was not risk-free – there was litigation, and even an attempt on his life. After ten years, he returned to London (with a Bostonian wife, Eunice), and continued to forward his interests in merchant shipping and the economic development of the colonies. He made several voyage as master of his own ship, and therefore became generally known as Captain Coram.
In 1712, he was elected a member of Trinity House, Deptford, which developed into today’s authority in charge of lighthouses and pilotage in England and Wales, but was then a charity devoted to the safety and well-being of mariners. (Masters of Trinity House have included Samuel Pepys and the Duke of Wellington.) His involvement in philanthropic ventures included the establishment of libraries in the American colonies, support for missionaries there, and relief for those imprisoned for debt; but closer to home, on his regular route between his home at Rotherhithe on the Thames and the city of London, he frequently discovered abandoned (or dead) children.
Coram was familiar with the orphanages and ospedali of Europe, and wanted to create a similar refuge in London. But he lacked influence and the patronage of the powerful, and it took him altogether seventeen years of lobbying and petitioning to achieve his goal. It seems likely that his unpolished manners and ‘salty’ language meant that he was not taken seriously, though it was pressure from the wives and daughters of the peerage which caused his first breakthrough. Coram’s petition was brought before the king in council in 1737, and the Foundling Hospital charter was signed by the king in 1739. After this glacially slow start, Coram still had to find the ‘governors’ of the institution – he recruited 375, selected for their wealth and influence – and raise money to cover costs. He also scouted for locations for the first building, designed its seal, and rented temporary premises to which the first orphans were admitted in 1741. (One of the governors was Jonas Hanway, another great philanthropist, whose Earnest Appeal for Mercy to the Children of the Poor we have reissued.)
By the time the purpose-built premises in Lamb’s Conduit Fields were opened in 1745, Coram had quarrelled with the governors, and played no further part in the running of the Hospital until his death in 1751. There is a story that he would visit the site often, with gingerbread in his pockets for the children, and he was buried with great ceremony in the vaults of the hospital chapel.
John Brownlow’s book, Memoranda, or Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital, first published in 1847, is a fascinating, though odd, account of the institution. Brownlow (1800–73) was himself apparently a foundling, and worked for the Hospital all his life, becoming secretary in 1849. The opening section of the book deals with an ‘accidental’ function of the hospital: in the second half of the eighteenth century, its distinguished collection of paintings, many of them donated by the artists, became London’s first public art gallery, and a popular meeting place for fashionable society.
Brownlow lists the artists and their pictures, and the history of the founding of the Hospital is given in the context of Hogarth’s great portrait of Coram himself. The two men were friends, and Hogarth was a major donor and fundraiser for the Hospital: he gave it the appropriate Moses before Pharaoh’s Daughter, and when he was raffling off The March of the Guards to Finchley, handed the unsold tickets to the governors: one of them won, and the picture has belonged to the Hospital ever since. Hogarth and many other artists used the Hospital as a sort of club (this was before the foundation of the Royal Academy), and Brownlow supplies short biographies of many of them (Sir Robert Strange and the incident of the lady’s crinoline being the most extraordinary), as well as details of the works they donated.
Another famous patron was Handel, who offered a performance of his works to raise money for the completion of the chapel. ‘The Prince and Princess of Wales, with a great number of persons of quality and distinction’ heard the Firework Music, and ‘the anthem on the Peace’ (the Utrecht Te Deum, presumably?), pieces from the oratorio Solomon, and ‘several pieces composed for the occasion, the words taken from Scripture, and applicable to the charity’ – one of which was presumably Blessed are they that considereth the poor,now known as the Foundling Hospital Anthem. More than a thousand people paid half a guinea each for tickets.
Subsequently, Handel, by now a governor, conducted a yearly performance of the Messiah in the chapel, raising thousands of pounds in the process. He also left the Hospital a fair copy of the score and parts, though the tactlessness of the governors almost ruined amicable relations. The tried to secure copyright on performances after the composer’s death by an act of Parliament, and Handel was not unsurprisingly very indignant about this when he found out. Handel is commemorated by two works of art, a bust by Roubiliac, and a portrait, thought by Brownlow to be by Sir Godfrey Kneller, he of the heavy-lidded beauties of Charles II’s court, though sadly the attribution is now questioned.
Incidentally, the musicologist Dr Burney campaigned enthusiastically for such of the orphans as showed aptitude to be educated musically, on the model of orphanages in Naples, Vienna, and of course the Pietà. His daughter Fanny describes with great indignation the stratagems of the cabal of governors who thwarted him, and, for this episode, Brownlow quotes extensively from her Memoir of Dr Burney.
Brownlow describes the vicissitudes as well as the high points in the Hospital’s history up to his own time: the arguments about admission policy, the occasional scandal, the accounts of babies from elsewhere in the country being carried down to London for a fee by ‘professional’ travellers, and often dying in the process. He also refers to the requirement from the earliest days for each foundling to be left some sort of ‘particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token’, and lists some of these – a heart-rending selection can still be seen today in the Foundling Museum, as well as the paintings, the Handel score, and Hogarth’s wonderful portrait of the salty and dogged Captain Thomas Coram.