Coram in literature
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Phiz – Hablot Knight Browne, Five-and-Twenty, Illustration for Charles Dickens’s Little Dorritt, 1856. Image courtesy of Victorian Web
It’s no accident that some of our best-known fictional children are those who are brought up without their parents to protect them, in orphanages, children’s homes or workhouses.
Forced to make their own way in the world, their experiences create a gripping read – how will they deal with what life throws at them and what opportunities will they grasp so they overcome their predicament?
Throughout its history, the story of Coram has inspired writers, novelists and poets alike. From Dickens’ Tattycoram to Lemn Sissay’s recent Superman was a Foundling, the charity’s work continues to inspire today.
And, as we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of our founder, a new children’s book has been published to help more people to learn about Thomas Coram’s remarkable story.
Champion for Children: new children’s book
Captain Coram: Champion for Children is a beautifully illustrated new children’s book which tells the remarkable but little known story of Thomas Coram.
Aimed at 7-11 year olds, the book was created and designed by Robin Ollington and illustrated with original watercolour drawings by Albany Wiseman. Robin and Albany have worked in partnership for over 50 years, publishing a number of children’s books.
Through its crowdfunding campaign, Coram has so far raised enough to send a free copy of the book to every school across London, and the campaign continues to enable the charity to reach schools in the rest of the UK.
Read more about the book here.
Tattycoram and other Dickens characters
Charles Dickens, who lived near the Foundling Hospital and was a supporter of Thomas Coram’s home for abandoned and destitute children, was inspired to create a fictional character whose early years were spent at the Foundling Hospital.
Part of a sub-plot of Little Dorrit (1855-57), the character Tattycoram, whose real name is Harriet Beadle, grows up in the Foundling Hospital. When she is “adopted” into a well-meaning family, the Meagles, where her job is to wait on her “half-sister,” Pet, her name becomes Hattie, then Tatty, and her benefactor changes her last name to Coram, after the man who founded the children’s home.
Little Dorrit is among many famous works in which Charles Dickens wrote about the Foundling Hospital. Dickens wrote of a foundling or an adopted child on many occasions – David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Old Curiosity Shop among many others. One of his most popular readings, Doctor Marigold, featured the adoption of a ragged deaf and dumb girl by the narrator of the piece.
Dickens wrote of the Hospital:
“Nineteen years after good Captain Coram’s heart has been so touched by the exposure of children, living, dying, and dead, in his daily walks, one wing of the existing building was completed and admission given to the first score of little blanks (foundling children).”
Dickens raised awareness of the Foundling Hospital through his work. In 1837 he moved to Doughty Street, near the Foundling Hospital, where he would go for regular walks through the grounds. There he wrote Oliver Twist, about an orphan boy, or ‘foundling’, as children with no parents to care for them were known.
The book also contains the character John Brownlow, probably named after the Hospital Secretary at the time, who had himself grown up in its care. Dickens rented a pew in the Hospital Chapel, a vital source of income for the school, and this may have been how he met Brownlow, who collected the pew rents.
Like Thomas Coram, Dickens was appalled by child poverty, and campaigned against social injustice. He even set up his own charity for destitute women – many of whom would have had no option but to bring their child to the Foundling Hospital to be brought up.
Dickens featured the Foundling Hospital most prominently in an article called ‘Received, a blank child’ for the journal Household Words in 1853. The poignant title was taken from the entry forms of the children who entered the Foundling Hospital, which included a space for the child’s name.
Dickens teamed up with Wilkie Collins to write the play No Thoroughfare in which the character Walter Wilding grows up in the Hospital’s care.
They write an emotive and atmospheric opening:
“…the Foundlings were received without question in a cradle at the gate. […] inquiries are made respecting them, and they are taken as by favour from the mothers who relinquish all natural knowledge of them and claim to them for evermore.
“The moon is at the full, and the night is fair with light clouds. The day has been otherwise than fair, for slush and mud, thickened with the droppings of heavy fog, lie black in the streets. The veiled lady who flutters up and down near the postern-gate of the Hospital for Foundling Children has need to be well shod to-night”.
Source: Pugh, Gillian, London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital (Stroud: Tempus, 2007)
Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy
Coram Boy is a Whitbread Award-winning novel set in 18th century England, and though it is fictional, it was inspired by the experience of children at The Foundling Hospital.
The story begins as the benevolent Thomas Coram opens a home in London called the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children. Unscrupulous men, known as ‘Coram Men’, take advantage of the situation by promising desperate mothers to take their children to be looked after at the home for a fee. It follows a range of characters, focusing on two orphans, Toby and Aaron, as their lives become closely involved with this tragic episode of British social history.
Jamila Gavin’s play highlights the desperation of mothers and how the Foundling Hospital offered them hope. It shows the vulnerability of both children and mothers, and the harsh realities they faced during this time.
The book is a widely used as a set text in schools and adaptations of the play are regularly performed by schools, universities and drama groups nationwide.
Author Jamila Gavin reflects:
I have always written for children, and it was the plight of children which attracted me to the Coram story. So although Coram Boy is a grim account involving the adult world, it was how children fared in that world which I wanted to write about, and with whom I felt the young reader would identify.
First and foremost, a writer of fiction is telling a story, so sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, accuracy may not be as thorough as it would be in non-fiction. Fiction is usually trying to explore different truths rather than merely facts and figures: emotional truths, social truths, the effects of power and domination, or sex and rivalry, families, friends and enemies, race and gender.
Fiction writers are often not historians or academics and I’m sure many, like me, write on a wing and a prayer, inspired by a story unfolding in their brains which happens to be set in the past. But occasionally if facts interfere with the truth of the story, there is the kindly explanation called “poetic licence!”
I stretch credibility in Coram Boy, when I have my young aristocratic eighteenth century boy, Alexander, go to the cathedral school in Gloucester because he has a beautiful singing voice and loves music, but this would have been a virtual impossibility in his time – even up to the twentieth century…an aristocrat like Alexander would not have been allowed to go to school and mix with the lower orders, and make friends with Thomas, a carpenter’s son.
I got it wrong when I had the Coram Hospital give Aaron and Toby the tokens which came with them when they were brought to the Foundling Hospital. There is no such record this happened, though there was the intention. But when I somewhat belatedly discovered this fact, I didn’t want to change that scene in the book as it illustrated a far more important emotion; children longing to know their identity, and connect with their mothers.
The book was adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson, with music by Adrian Sutton, and played for two runs on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre in 2005-2006 and 2006–2007, and also on Broadway in 2007. Coram Boy was re-staged in 2011 by Bristol Old Vic at Colston Hall.
The play was nominated for multiple awards, including being nominated for six Tony Awards in 2007, and won the Theatre World Award in 2007.
Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather
Hetty Feather is a best-selling children’s story of a spirited little girl in Victorian England, inspired by Coram’s historic beginnings as the Foundling Hospital.
In an interview with Penguin Books, Dame Jacqueline discussed how she created her heroine:
“I stared out the window, imagining what it would be like to be a child growing up in the forbidding atmosphere of a foundling hospital. I thought of all those children in their uncomfortable brown uniforms – and then I saw one child, smaller than her peers, with bright red hair peeping out of her white cap. She grinned at me defiantly and I knew she was my girl, my feisty little Hetty Feather.”
Set in London in 1876, the story itself starts at the Foundling Hospital – its heroine Hetty Feather is abandoned as a baby at the hospital, but gets fostered until the age of five by her kind-hearted foster parents, who live in a big house with their own children and other foundlings..
However when a circus moves into town, feisty Hetty sneak off to see the show. Hetty is mesmerized by what she sees but has to soon return to the Foundling Hospital to begin her schooling. She misses her friends, especially Jem who has promised to marry her when she comes of age, but Hetty now has the chance to find her real mother.
The Foundling Hospital was central to Wilson’s imagining of her character. Dame Jacqueline has told of how she has imagined Hetty “creeping up the stairs and sliding down the bannisters” of the Hospital’s original wooden staircase, today preserved at The Foundling Museum.
The series of Hetty Feather books have sold millions of copies, led to an Olivier Award-nominated stage show and an ongoing BAFTA-nominated CBBC television series.
In 2017, the family-friendly exhibition Picturing Hetty Feather at the Foundling Museum celebrated Dame Jacqueline Wilson’s book, with props and original costumes from the CBBC Hetty Feather television set and unseen treasures from the Foundling Hospital Collection and archive. The exhibition explores the ways in which writers, directors and designers used historical evidence and factual gaps to bring the Foundling Hospital to life, and enables visitors of all ages to imagine what life was like for Hetty and real-life foundling children.
The Hetty Feather Journal can be purchased from Coram’s shop here.
Eliza Doolittle and The Foundling Hospital
George Bernard Shaw’s famous play Pygmalion about Eliza Doolittle, a flower girl trained in elocution and etiquette to the point where she can pass herself off in high society, appears to have been inspired by the story of Sabrina Sidney, who was sent to the Foundling Hospital in London at the age of two.
In the 18th Century, she, and another girl named Lucretia, were plucked from a branch of The Foundling Hospital in Shrewsbury by the philanthropist and poet Thomas Day and trained to be the ‘perfect wife’.
The idea of creating a perfect soulmate was not new. The Roman poet Ovid told of the sculptor Pygmalion who carves a marble statue of his dream woman then begs the goddess Venus to bring her to life. The myth has inspired countless reincarnations including George Bernard Shaw’s play about Professor Henry Higgins who accepts a bet to train Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle to pass for a duchess, later turned into the musical My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.
By the age of 21, Day had a fixed view of his ideal woman: beautiful, intelligent, tough and hardy, and, most importantly, subservient.
Lucretia, in Day’s view, did not make the grade, but he kept Sabrina on and taught her how to read and all about science. At 17 she was described as being a “very beautiful, very refined lady”. However, when he gave up on the project in 1771, Sabrina was sent off to boarding school and eventually she, too, married happily, having managed to successfully navigate the upper echelons of society. Their story is told in full in Wendy Moore’s 2013 book How to Create the Perfect Wife.
Bruce McKay introduces Spatchcocked!
Henry Fielding and The Foundling Hospital
Henry Fielding’s support of The Foundling Hospital is highlighted in a black comedy by Bruce McKay about the writer and Coram’s great benefactor William Hogarth. You can read about it here.
In recent times, fictional foundlings, such as these were recognised and honoured by the poet and playwright Lemn Sissay in his Foundling Museum installation Superman was a Foundling. The aim was to reveal and elevate fictional stars of popular and classic culture who were fostered, adopted and orphaned. A full list of the characters included in Superman was a Foundling, can be seen here.
Sissay himself spent 18 years in the care system, an experience, which he says has had profound effect on his adult life.
“I'm told that...18 years in children's systems...was just to do with my childhood and I've realised very clearly as an adult that the effect of my childhood is more pronounced in my adulthood than it ever was in my childhood."
Lemn Sissay at the launch of Superman was a Foundling in 2014.
Lemn added this message of support to Coram’s pledge wall:
“Harry Potter was a foster child, Superman was adopted and Cinderella was fostered. Whereas art heralds the particular talents and insights of the child who is without parents Coram takes care of her (or him). This is why I support them.”
The history of foundlings in literature
At the beginning of the 18th Century, literature started to change and the novel as a genre began to appear. With increasing literacy, and changes in society, the novel introduced a method of storytelling based in reality. Literature was based in fact, and Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling was one of the first to do this in 1749. Often cited as one of the first ever ‘novels’, it explores the themes of identity and genealogy, with the backdrop of the Foundling Hospital. With many homeless children and growing inequality, these themes were familiar to readers.
The novel genre also began to represent other classes and social types in society. In Tom Jones, the reader is introduced to characters of different classes and gives a picture of the current society. It was a reflection that people could recognise as they read, making the story more emotive and raise questions about the ways in which people lived their daily lives. Fielding’s social commentary criticises the class system that stops Tom Jones from marrying whom he loves, as he doesn’t know his lineage or class and can therefore not be married to someone of a high rank. By following Tom Jones closely and in a factual way, the reader grows to relate to and empathise with so they can see that these societal rules are arbitrary and unfair. By making Tom Jones a foundling, Fielding is playing with the themes of identity and social standing, and illustrating that worth should be measured by actions, not birth.
Henry Fielding’s mother died when he was 11. His grandmother fought his father for custody and won, though he still saw his father. He was therefore arguably familiar with a sense of displacement, and not being brought up in a ‘traditional’ family environment. When he was older, he became a barrister and wrote satirical plays for the theatre. He went through times of poverty, and lost his daughter and wife within two years of each other. He wrote political pamphlets, frustrated with law enforcement, and continued his socially aware writing during intense social and political change.
Writing the plight of abandoned children
While writers have been inspired by, and continue to write about, the plight of neglected and abandoned children, their work has also served to remind us of the difficulties faced by those young people and how we can help them.
As the former Children’s Laureate Michael Morpurgo says:
“We can go back to Dickens […], he wrote a great deal about the poverty of people and children in particular in the streets of London. At some stage, whether it was Hogarth or whether it was Dickens, we changed. We decided that this was not a way that people should be.
“Writers and poets and artists and dramatists are there to remind us of these things. […] I think it’s important for me certainly that whenever I write a story, it is a cause in some sense and I’m quite sure Dickens felt that when he wrote Oliver Twist.”
Voices writing competition
Today, we look to the children and young people themselves to tell their own stories in their own words. Voices is the charity’s annual writing competition for looked-after children and care leavers.