Lost mittens and foundlings of Coram Fields

This lost looking little mitten hooked on a railing as if by a kind passer-by for the mother to find is actually made of bronze. It was part of an art exhibition in 2010 at the Foundling Museum and it one of a number of items by Tracey Emin called Baby Clothes.

Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Museum is an interesting but heart-rending place to visit.

Outside is a statue by William McMillan of Thomas Coram (1668-1751). It is based on a portrait of Coram by William Hogarth which is inside the building.

Coram was shipwright who spent years working in America where he married. The couple came to England to settle in London in 1704.

They did not have children. Thomas was concerned by the number of babies he saw abandoned in the streets. Perhaps they would be rescued by a kind stranger but more often than not, they died there.

There were no orphanages in England. Coram campaigned for funds and permission to build one. It is the oldest charity in Britain.  

To get permission and sponsorship for it, he needed support from the king. He was not a noble and did not feel able to petition the king directly. For many years he tried to persuade well connected men to help and to donate to the cause. Then he began to approached instead aristocratic ladies who were in the habit of doing charitable works.

He urged the Duchess of Somerset to sign a petition to the king in 1729. After more years of lobbying noblemen and gentlemen including Dr Richard Mead, physician to George II, he got more signatures on his petition.

Many people were against the orphanage. They thought it encourage prostitution and immorality because the women would not have to live with the consequences of their behaviour.

In 1741 the Board of Governors fell out with him. He was too blunt and was not always happy with how the orphanage was being run. He was forced off the board and the institution he had created now ran without him.

Coram was only invited for the baptisms of the new foundlings. He was godfather to 20 of the babies there. He ended his days poor and shabbily dressed. He was often seen in the Hospital colonnade giving gingerbread to the children. He died 1751 and was buried under the altar of the new hospital chapel.

Life as a foundling

Personally, I feel very sorry for Thomas Coram. For the way he was treated and for the children who came here. If he had been left in place maybe they would have had happier lives in his compassionate care.

As it was life was hard for them. They all had their hair cut in the same style and were given a uniform. Basic brown colour. The style based on military wear for boys and servant’s clothes for the girls – their destiny in most cases.

The diet was plain and monotonous. Portions were small and most children were hungry. The foundling children tended to be shorter than average as adults indicating a poor diet as children.

However they were as well fed as the children of the poor living outside the hospital.

There was an infirmary and an apothecary on site. This gave the children access to medical treatment which was not available to children in poor families.

Their schooling taught them to be humble, pious citizens who would not be a burden on the community and would know their place. They were brought up to be grateful for their rescue and to aspire to a life of duty in order to wipe out the sin of their illegitimacy.

Unlike subsequent orphanages there is no record of any child rising to any kind of greatness.

So, Tracey Emin’s little mitten is doubly touching. As an object of itself and as a reminder of the sad little children who passed this way.

The Foundling Museum today

The Foundling Hospital moved to Berkhamsted in 1920s. Its original buildings in Brunswick Square were demolished. There were plans to redevelop the grounds but local people successfully campaigned to maintain them as a park in Thomas Coram’s memory. The hospital finally closed in the 1950s.

What is now the Foundling Museum was built in 1938 as the headquarters of the movement. Many of the interiors of the original hospital and its fantastic art collection were transferred here. Since 1998 it has been a fascinating museum.

After the hospital’s closure the organisation became known as the Thomas Coram Foundation. The harsh attitudes changed with the name. There is now a new headquarters behind the statue of Thomas Coram. Today it is known as the Coram Family and Childcare Trust and its work is helping struggling parents.

To book a tour about philanthropy in Bloomsbury and of the Foundling Museum Contactez-moi

About the author: Gail Jones

Tourist Guide

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