Coram’s musical heritage

On this page

See also


Lily Allen at City Rocks, a Coram event at the Albert Hall

What links Baroque composer and creator of Messiah, Handel to London songstress and platinum album seller, Lily Allen?

Both have generously thrown their support behind Coram so that we can reach out to vulnerable children who need our help.

In 1749 Handel offered to stage a concert to pay for the Chapel at the Foundling Hospital. He’d heard about Thomas Coram’s efforts to provide a home for vulnerable, abandoned, children and wanted to help.

Today, Coram is proud to have the support of leading artists, such as Lily Allen, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Annie Lennox to help us continue the work of our charity today. In 2014, a number of top artists featured in City Rocks, Coram’s biggest-ever fundraising concert held as part of celebrations to mark its 275th birthday.

Our rich musical heritage also continues in our Handel Birthday Concert, held every February to celebrate the composer’s birthday, and in our Creative Therapies work, where music therapy helps vulnerable children communicate and express their feelings.


Girls singing on a piano at the Foundling Hospital

Music and the Foundling Hospital

Music remained an important part of the Foundling Hospital from its early days when Handel was a benefactor to its closure in the 20th Century. Children sang psalms, hymns and anthems and were encouraged to learn an instrument and join the Hospital band or orchestra. Musical performances were given to raise vital funds.

Additionally, music would prove a route to success for many children, such as Charles Nalden. Born in 1908 and brought to the Foundling Hospital by his mother at just three weeks old, Charles took up the cornet and joined the school band. As a teenager he was offered a position in an army band, and he went on to become a successful bandmaster before gaining a doctorate in music from the University of London. He became a Professor of Music in New Zealand and was awarded a CBE for services to music.


Handel and Messiah

Without Coram, few would have heard of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

In 1749, the Baroque composer and creator of Messiah, offered to stage a concert to pay for the Chapel at the Foundling Hospital. He’d heard about Thomas Coram’s efforts to provide a home for vulnerable, abandoned, children and wanted to help.

The concert took place on 27 May 1749 and included an anthem specially written by Handel called Blessed are they that considereth the poor, known today as the Foundling Hospital Anthem and ended with the Hallelujah Chorus, lifted directly from Messiah – a work that few of his audience would have known. Ladies were instructed not to wear hooped skirts, and men told not to bring their swords, to make more room for the large number of people expected to come.

Sure enough, the event was a huge hit, and the next year Handel was appointed a Governor of the Hospital, donating an organ to the chapel and conducting a performance of Messiah. Tickets sold out and, because wealthy supporters had to be turned away on the night, another concert arranged two weeks later. 

Handel continued to stage Messiah every year until his death in 1759. He raised almost £7,000 in all – over a million in today’s money. It was a vital source of income that meant the Hospital could continue to provide a home for vulnerable, abandoned children.

Watch our Handel Birthday Concert 2019 below.

Handel’s parting gift to Coram was a fair copy of Messiah, left to the Foundling Hospital in his will, together with his copy of the Foundling Anthem. You can see these manuscripts and learn more about Handel’s connection with our charity by visiting the Gerald Coke Handel Collection at the Foundling Museum.

Source: Pugh, Gillian, London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital (Stroud: Tempus, 2007)

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

Public domain image

Engraving of the Foundling Hospital chapel

Thomas Coram's playlist

Music was an integral part of Thomas Coram’s life, from his earliest days at sea, when life on board merchant ships was played out to the rhythm of the songs sailors sang, to the fund-raising concerts conducted by Handel at the Foundling Hospital, which made the Hallelujah Chorus famous.

Music was central to his plan; spiritually and physically, the hospital chapel was at the centre of the foundlings’ lives. Most would sing in the choir and learn to play instruments. Many of the boys went into military service as bandsmen.

Visitors flocked to attend Sunday services to hear the Foundling Hospital choir – in the 19th century, Charles Dickens is one of many famous names who rented a pew – and fundraising concerts have been an important feature throughout our history.

We have compiled a playlist for Thomas Coram. Some of it is music he would probably have heard, some reflects his interests and concerns at the hospital and beyond, and some of it is music he would pick today as he continued to campaign and argue for vulnerable people.

In 1749 the composer George Frideric Handel went to a meeting of the governors of the new Foundling Hospital, where the problem of raising money to complete the chapel was discussed. The minutes record the composer’s proposal, readily agreed by the governors:

Mr Handel being present and having generously and charitably offered a performance of vocal and instrumental music to be held at this Hospital, and that the money arising therefrom should be applied to the finishing the chapel of the Hospital.

Handel’s concert included the Foundling Hospital Anthem, ‘Blessed are they that considereth the poor’, which he composed specially for the concert, to be sung by the foundling children. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended, ensuring that the concert was a society event too. The chapel and church music were literally and spiritually at the centre of Thomas Coram’s plan for the Hospital, and fundraising concerts were crucial fundraising events.

This song, about the life of merchant sailors, was popular during Coram’s time although it dates back to King Henry VIII. He would certainly understand its sentiments. One of his last projects was to set up a bank in London to provide relief for sailors from New England suffering hardship in London.

As a merchant seaman himself, Thomas Coram might well have heard Three Poor Mariners sung on board ship, in the streets, and in coffee houses and taverns – he may well have sung it himself.

In the 1600s, this song was usually sung to a well-known dance tune; the tune and lyrics feature in an important and very popular work in the history of folk songs, Thomas D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (vol i, 1698 and 1707). Many foundling boys went to sea – they left the care of the Foundling Hospital to serve in the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Marines.

John Gay’s satire, The Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728, was as much a landmark in musical performance as the new oratorio form that Handel’s chose for Messiah. Gay’s attacks on politics, poverty, corruption and injustice – and the fashion for Italian opera - are presented through ballads and songs.

Gay wrote the words and drew on popular songs of the time for tunes all could hum. Thomas Coram would recognise many of Gay’s targets and his letters suggest that he would probably have enjoyed Gay’s robust humour too. Coram understood the vulnerability of Gay’s female characters and of the young henchman Filch, as explained by Mrs Peachum here.

The dangers of life on the streets of London – especially the risks to women and their children, were the driving forces behind Coram’s 19-year campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital.

As a trustee, Thomas Coram was among the founders of the American colony of Georgia and had a major influence in shaping the laws and principles of the state. It was his intention for much of his life to return to America, so Hoagy Carmichael’s classic song – the official song of the state since 1979 – is particularly appropriate.

Ray Charles, who was born in Georgia, performs the best-known version but this is the original from 1930, with Carmichael himself singing and, on cornet, Bix Beiderbecke in one of his last recordings. 

Thomas Coram was fiercely loyal to the British monarchy in the manner this song suggests. The lyrics and music to Here's a Health unto His Majesty were first published in 1667, in the reign of Charles II, and it remained a popular song throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

At that time, many of the boys brought up in the Foundling Hospital later served as bandsmen in the British Army. Fittingly, it is now the regimental marching tune of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

In Coram today the military links are long gone but music remains integral to our services. Our music therapists work with children with communication problems, in groups or individually, helping them to express themselves.

Thomas Coram believed in equal rights for men and women. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees that Georgia should offer rights of inheritance to women on the same basis as men – and won the argument. He believed that education was at least  as vital for girls as for boys, and so it was from the start at the Foundling Hospital.

This song about rights for women was published in the feminist magazine thePhiladelphia Minerva in 1795, when Thomas Coram was living in America.

The song was clearly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, whose best-selling book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1792.

Certainly a popular rhyme in Thomas Coram’s time, its origins are disputed. One theory is that the song refers to Blackbeard the pirate. Coram’s voyage to America would have taken him through the waters between the Carolinas and the Caribbean where Blackbeard (originally Edward Teach, c.1680-1718), the most feared pirate of the time, attacked merchant ships. Coram and his crew would have been on the lookout for pirates and Teach in particular.

In his old age, Thomas Coram would have heard the song sung in the streets of London. The first verse appeared in print in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London around 1744.

It is tempting to imagine Thomas Coram sitting in his regular place outside the Foundling Hospital chapel, listening to foundlings singing this song and telling them about his adventures avoiding Blackbeard. But history isn’t that neat, so while he could have done so, we don’t know whether he did.

Handel was a key figure in the early days of the hospital. Following the success of the first concert, he came every year for the rest of his life to conduct a performance of the Messiah, raising the equivalent of £500,000 for the hospital.

He became a governor and in his will, left the hospital a fair copy of the score as well as an organ for the chapel. The performances at the hospital established Messiah as a major choral work with an international appeal.

We still celebrate our links to the famous composer, most recently in the 'Sing for Coram' Day in which 150 Coram supporters sang Handel choruses, to celebrate the granting of the Royal Charter 275 years ago.