The Foundling Hospital, London

The Foundling Hospital, London

 Ever since I was a Blue Badge Guide of London I have intended to vist the museum at Coram’s Fields. I used to work on coaches tours that would take us through Russell Square area and I would enjoy telling stories about the Dukes of Bedford and their development of huge swathes of land just north of the British Museum. To make a contrast I would always mention a Captain Thomas Coram, who of course nobody had heard of, and briefly describe how he succeeded in setting up the very first officially organised children’s home in the country. I never had the chance to elaborate much more as the coach would have already whisked us on to a new vista with different stories to tell!   

Thomas Coram, Foundling Hospital

Thomas Coram, Foundling Hospital

So twenty or so years later here I am about to make my first visit! The reason was partly due to me hearing about an exhibition called Threads of Feeling which I thought sounded really interesting, drawing upon textile items from the archive to tell the stories of these babies and tiny children from the 18th Century. As I found out, it is a really evocative title for an exhibition that tugs hard on the heartstrings!  It all began with a virtually unknown Captain Thomas Coram who on returning to London after many years at sea and living in the American Colonies was appalled to see so many neglected and abandoned children on the streets of London. He decided that something had to be done and so wrote begging letters. Queen Caroline, George II’s consort responded and it was she who ensured a Royal Charter was passed in 1739 creating the first children’s charity. Three figures became integral to the establishment of The Foundling Hospital:  the campaigner Thomas Coram, the artist William Hogarth whose works captured the travesties of the poor in London and the composer Frederik Handel who had made London his home.   

Right from the first few children the ‘Hosptal’ was assiduous in keeping the fullest of records of children in its care. The huge archive comprises 250m of shelving to store the entry books recording the lives of thousands of forsaken children. Pinned to many of the 18th Century registration documents were small textile items such as pieces of material, ribbons and bows given by the mothers as a way of providing a link with the past for these children. Most mothers who were no longer able to care for their infants and were successful in passing them on to the Hospital often did so with the intention of reclaiming them when they found themselves in better times. These little pieces of cloth provided easily recognisable identification and proof of the emotional attachment that once existed between mother and child. With more than 5000 items it is the largest collection of everyday textiles in this country to survive from the 18th Century, ranging from coarse linens to light silks, ribbons, bows and embroidery.
Decision Time at the Foundling Hospital

Decision Time at the Foundling Hospital

Note – I said above about whether mothers were successful in handing over their babies – for very many weren’t. In the early days only a very few were admitted and the only way to make the choice impartial was to make mothers dip into a bag of balls. The child was accepted if she drew out a white ball. There were nine black balls to every one white ball! So we can all easily imagine the tension in the Reception Hall.   

Of course there must have been loads of children whose mothers were just relieved to get rid of them, but the variety of fabric mementoes together with personal written notes showed how reluctant many mothers were. Click on the photos below to see the writing and stitching! I found of particular interest differences between the bows provided for boys and girls. This gave a clear differentiation between the sexes for in the 18th Century there was no such thing as blue for boys and pink for girls. Girls ribbons were very loosely tied into bows whereas the ribbon for boys was tied in a cockade as can be seen in the photos. I found this all really fascinating and will add another post soon about the significance of cockades in the 18th Century!  

Cockade on Registration Documents at the Foundling Museum

Cockade on Registration Documents at the Foundling Museum

Material strip 1767 Foundling Museum

Material Strip dated 1767 at the Foundling Museum

Child's Sleeve pinned to documents at the Foundling Hospital

Child's Sleeve pinned to documents at the Foundling Hospital

Silver Ribbon Foundling Museum

Silver Ribbon with Writing at the Foundling Museum

After lunch in the Coram Café, which is well worth recommending, we returned to the exhibition and walked around the rest of the musem which is now housed in a building adjacent to where the Foundling Hospital was originally built. The interior of the museum has been re-created to look just as it was in the 18th Century with a magnificent art collection including paintings of many of the benefactors of the Hospital since its establishment in 1739. More than 27,000 children have passed throught the hospital between 1739 and 1954 when it was finally closed. But the ethos of the hospital continues today as the children’s charity Coram.