Campaigning for children

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    Thomas Coram was a champion for foundlings at a time when most people thought that helping unwanted children would encourage promiscuity.

    We don’t know whether there was a particular incident that aroused his compassion, or whether it was because of his staunch Anglican faith, or because he had experienced a difficult childhood himself after his own mother died when he was only three or four.

    What we do know is that Coram was a determined campaigner for people who could not stand up for themselves and that he could not and would not ignore destitute children on London’s streets.

    Captain Coram’s solution was to petition the king for a charter to create a foundling hospital that would be supported by subscriptions. But at first this met with no success. He found it impossible to gain the backing of anyone influential enough, and there was opposition to the idea because of attitudes to illegitimacy.

    Undaunted, and inspired by the role of French women in caring for foundlings in Paris, Coram decided to ask English noblewomen to lend weight to his petition and gain the interest of influential men along the way.

    In this he triumphed. Not only did ’21 inspiring women’ sign a petition, he also won the support of many aristocratic and influential men who, along with the ladies of quality and distinction, helped turn the establishment of a hospital for foundlings into a fashionable cause.

    Finally, on 17 October 1739, King George II signed a royal charter. Governors were quickly appointed from those who had donated to the cause, and the work of the Foundling Hospital could begin.

    Coram had a vision in which foundling children were cared for and educated so that, ultimately, they could support themselves.

    In this he was both humanitarian and ahead of his times. During his lifetime, it was widely believed that foundlings didn’t deserve charity because they were the product of immoral behaviour. And while workhouses did exist, it was argued that the act of receiving charity should be made unattractive to ensure only the truly destitute would apply. This included putting children to work as soon as possible.

    As an experienced campaigner, Coram knew the importance of making his radical idea acceptable to existing and potential supporters. Accordingly, his campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital not only outlined the plight of foundling children, but also the benefits to society of removing them from the streets and creating useful citizens.

    An engraving of Captain Coram by B Nebot, dated 1741