The Darker Side of London History – Captain Coram and the Foundling Hospital

copyright The Foundling Museum

Recently, Janet Mullany at Risky Regencies did a post on websites of interest, one of them being a link to the Threads of Feeling online exhibition mounted by the Foundling Museum in London, which allows you to view fabrics that illustrate the moment of parting as mothers left their babies at the original Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram.
From the Museum’s website – “In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital’s nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century.
“John Styles Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to curate the exhibition. John comments: “The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.
The textiles are both beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. But the textiles also tell us about the clothes their mothers wore, because baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th Century.”

Captain Thomas Coram painted by William Hogarth 1740

The Foundling Hospital in London began as the mission of retired sea captain Thomas Coram, who was appalled at the number of abandoned babies in the City. It took Captain Coram 17 years to raise the necessary money to build The Foundling Hospital as “an hospital for exposed and deserted children” to which destitute mothers brought their babies. AThe artist William Hogarth joined the cause and attracted benefactors by hanging many of his valuable paintings in the building and thereby founding the first London Art Gallery; and Handel gave fundraising concerts in the Hospital Chapel, which included a special Foundling Anthem and the music of Messiah. Coram’s efforts were finally recognized by King George II who, in 1739, gave Coram a Royal Charter to create the Foundling Hospital.
No man could have undertaken a cause with a greater need, nor with such good intentions. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of abandoned and unwanted children led to pitfalls the kind hearted Coram could not have forseen.
From Memoranda; or, Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital by John Brownlow (1847)
“When a Foundling Hospital was established in Paris, in the year 1640, its objects were limited to the children found exposed in that city, and its suburbs; and it was understood by those who furthered a similar design in this country, that its operation would, in the same manner, be confined to London and its environs. But benefits so tempting being irresistable to persons in country towns, they were determined to share with the good people of London, a privilege which they considered common to all. “There is set up in our Corporation ” (writes a correspondent from a town three hundred miles distant, in one of the chronicles of the day), ” a new and uncommon trade, namely, the conveying children to the Foundling Hospital. The person employed in this trade is a woman of notoriously bad character. She undertakes the carrying of these children at so much per head. She has, I am told, made one trip already; and is now set upon her journey with two of her daughters, each with a child on her back.” The writer then very properly suggests, that it ought to be ascertained “whether or not these poor infants do really arrive at their destination, or what becomes of them.” That such an inquiry was necessary, there is no doubt;—the sequel will prove it.
“At Monmouth, a person was tried for the murder of his child, which was found drowned with a stone about its neck! when the prisoner proved that he delivered it to a travelling tinker, who received a guinea from him to carry it to the Hospital. Nay, it was publicly asserted in the House of Commons, that one man who had the charge of five infants in baskets, happened in his journey to get intoxicated, and lay all night asleep on a common; and in the morning he found three of the five children he had in charge actually dead! Also, that of eight infants brought out of the country at one time in a waggon, seven died before it reached London: the surviving child owing its life to the solicitude of its mother; who rather than commit it alone to the carrier, followed the waggon on foot, occasionally affording her infant the nourishment it required.
“It was further stated, that a man on horseback, going to London with luggage in two panniers, was overtaken at Highgate, and being asked what he had in his panniers, answered, “I have two children in each: I brought them from Yorkshire for the Foundling Hospital, and used to have eight guineas a trip; but lately another man has set up against me, which has lowered my price.”

copyright This Butterfly Mind
In his Knight’s Cyclopædia of London (1851) Charles Knight explains more about this dark trade in children and how children were received at the Hospital:
“During the period from the establishment of the Hospital to about five years after the death of Coram the applications for admission were so constantly beyond the number that the funds would admit, that the Governors ultimately determined to petition Parliament for assistance. It received the application favourably, and on the 6th of April, 1756, granted the sum of .£10,000, on the condition that all children under a certain age (first two months, then six, and lastly, as at present, twelve) should be received. And now commenced a state of things that had well-nigh utterly destroyed the institution, and which for a time caused it to be looked on, and at unjustly, as the greatest curse in the shape of a blessing that well-meant charity had ever inflicted. To make the act of application as agreeable as possible, a basket was hung at the gate, and all the trouble imposed on parents was the ringing of a bell, as they deposited their little burdens, to inform the officers of the act. Prostitution was never before, in England at least, made so easy. The new system began on the 2nd of June, 1756, on which day 117 children were received, and before the close of the year the vast number of 1,783 were adopted by the institution. Far from being frightened at this army of infants so suddenly put under their care, the Govenors appear to have been apprehensive of being neglectful of the uses and capacites of the institution; for in the following June appeared advertisements in the chief public papers, and notices at the end of every street, informing all who were concerned how very widely open were the Hospital gates. Such attention was not ill bestowed; 3727 children were admitted that year, and in all, during the three years and ten months this precious system lusted, nearly 15,000 infants were received into The Foundling Hospital! And now for some of the consequences. “There is set up in our corporation (writes a correspondent from a town three hundred miles distant in one of the chronicles of the day) a new and uncommon trade, namely, the conveying children to the Foundling Hospital. The person employed in this trade is a woman of a notoriously bad character. She undertakes the carrying of these children at so much per head. She has, I am told, made one trip already, and is now set upon her journey with two of her daughters, each with a child on her back.” From another quarter we learn that the charge for bringing up children from Yorkshire, four in two panniers slung across a horse’s back, was for some time eight guineas a trip, but competition had in that, as in other pursuits, lowered the price. It was perhaps to make up for the reduction in the profits that certain carriers, before leaving the children, actually stripped the little creatures naked for the sake of the value of their clothing, and thus left them in the basket! The same authority also states that out of eight babes brought up from the country for the Foundling Hospital at one time in a waggon, seven died before it reached London.”
Here we return to Memoranda; or, Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital
“This practice of transporting children from remote towns was condemned by a distinct resolution of the House of Commons, and a Bill was ordered to be brought in to prevent it; but this Bill was never presented, so that parish officers and others still continued to carry on their illicit trade, by delivering children to vagrants, who, for a small sum of money, undertook the task of conveying them to the Hospital, although they were in no condition to take care of them, whereby numbers perished for want, or were otherwise destroyed; and even in cases where children were really left at the Hospital, the barbarous wretches who had the conveying of them, not content with the gratuity they received, stript the poor infants of their clothing into the bargain, leaving them naked in the basket at the Hospital gate.*
“A system so void of all order and discretion, must necessarily have occasioned many difficulties: for instance, it frequently happened, that persons who sent their children to the Hospital, having nothing to prove their reception, were suspected, or, if not suspected, were charged by their malevolent neighbours with destroying them, and were consequently cited before a magistrate of the district to shew to the contrary. This they could only do by procuring an examination of the Hospital registers; and the Governors were frequently called upon for certificates of the fact, before the party could be released. This inconvenience was, however, afterwards obviated, by the practice of giving a billet to each person who brought a child, acknowledging its reception.

“* The following is a strong instance of the vicissitudes of life :—A few years since, an aged Banker in the north of England, received into the Hospital at the above period, was desirous of becoming acquainted with his origin, when, all the information afforded by the books of the establishment was, that he was put into the basket at the gate naked.”

Part Two Tomorrow!

3 thoughts on “The Darker Side of London History – Captain Coram and the Foundling Hospital”

  1. I urge visitors to visit this site. It's within walking distance of the British Museum and the Dickens House. One of the cases had lists of children's names — fascinating and sad, too — these were the names the staff gave the babies left at their doorstep.

  2. Oh what a poignant post. The image of the mother following the wagon is heartbreaking. Even as she gave her child into the care of others she could not let it go alone. This site is definitely on my list to see when I finally visit London again.

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