The creation of the Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a view of the courtyard. Engraving by B. Cole, 1754. © Wellcome Collection.

Thomas Coram had a vision for abandoned, ‘foundling’ children: that they should be cared for and educated so that, ultimately, they could support themselves.

Babies of unmarried mothers or very poor parents who could not care for them were frequently abandoned or left to die. As a result there was opposition to provide any care for these children as the view was that this would encourage society’s view of ‘immorality’. Thomas Coram had a very different view, and had compassion for the mothers and the children. From the outset, his aim was to provide the opportunity for the mothers to resume a ‘useful life’ in the world, as well as to provide care and a future life for the children.

As an experienced campaigner, Coram knew the importance of making his radical idea for a foundling hospital acceptable to supporters. His campaign not only outlined the plight of foundling children, but also the benefits to society of removing them from the streets and creating ‘useful’ citizens.

Thomas Coram dedicated 17 years to campaigning for the Foundling Hospital to be built. His campaign picked up pace when he engaged ‘21 ladies of distinction‘ – after powerful men in society had initially refused to support his plan – and King George II signed the Foundling Hospital Charter in October 1739. Things began to move quickly after this – a large board of wealthy and influential Governors and Guardians was drawn up and a meeting called at Somerset House in London during which Thomas Coram presented the Charter to the Duke of Bedford, the Hospital’s first President.

The first children admitted

While the Governors set to work on their plans for the new hospital, the first children were admitted on 25 March 1741 to a temporary house in London’s Hatton Garden with a capacity for 30 children. 

The governors felt that 60 children would be the maximum limit they could admit, which led to restrictions on admissions, which initially included babies being required to be under two months old and free from disease.

Mothers were encouraged to leave a distinguishing token – such as a marked coin, trinket, or scrap of fabric – as an identifier should they ever be in a position to come back and reclaim their child. 

The children were baptised and given a new name. It was thought that a completely new start would give them the best chance of a good life. It was also important for the mothers to assure them of confidentiality so that they could rebuild their lives.

Once received, children were sent to be wet-nursed with foster families in the countryside, a system introduced  where they stayed until they were about five years old. At the age of 16, girls were generally apprenticed for domestic service; at 14, boys were apprenticed into a variety of occupations, typically for seven years, and many were trained for military service. 

In September 1742, the foundation stone of the new hospital building was laid on land acquired from the Earl of Salisbury on Lamb’s Conduit Field in Bloomsbury. It was designed in plain brick by Theodore Jacobsen with two wings – one each for boys and girls – and a chapel. 

Meanwhile, applications by mothers for their babies to be admitted to the Foundling Hospital soon far outstripped the places available. Demand was so great that a lottery system was introduced. Mothers were asked to draw coloured balls from a bag. If they picked a white ball, their infant was provisionally admitted; if they picked a red one, they could wait and see if one of the infants already accepted turned out to be ineligible because of an infectious illness. A black ball meant outright rejection.

Expansion of the Foundling Hospital

In 1756, the Government offered a grant so that more children could be received into the Foundling Hospital without the need for a lottery system. This funding was conditional on the Hospital accepting all children referred and was one of the most challenging periods of the organisation’s history as the governors struggled to cope with the growing number of admissions.

Several new branches of the hospital were temporarily opened to cope with the large number of children during this period, which was called ‘General Admission’, as any child could be admitted. These were based at Ackworth, Shrewsbury, Aylesbury, Barnet, Chester and Westerham.

During the four years of general reception, mortality rates in the Hospital increased to 81% compared to 45% before admission was opened up and the mortality rate of children wet nursed in the countryside doubled.

The funding from the Government proved inadequate to enable Governors to provide a reasonable level of care for so many, and in February 1760 the grant was ended. The Hospital was unable to take many new children for some years.

The 1800s – education and army bands

In 1801, the Governors changed the objective of caring for exposed and deserted children to that of caring for illegitimate children. They were admitted only if their mothers made a sufficiently strong case for their ability to make a new start in life. The children still went to foster mothers during their early years, returning to London for schooling at the hospital and moving on to apprenticeships. 

Much of Hospital life continued comparatively unchanged, despite attempts to reform aspects of the governance of the institution.  In December 1807, as Gillian Pugh observes in her book ‘London’s Forgotten Children’, it is documented that 13 pupils asked if the rules could be changed so that mothers and children could ‘preserve a mutual knowledge of each other’. However the Governors decided that this was ‘incompatible’ with the founding principles of the organisation.

A principle was appointed to the girls’ school in 1852, and in her report to the General Committee she raised concerns about the unsatisfactory education of the girls, poorly trained staff and poor accommodation.  The governors accepted the report, and made changes to the timetable, brought in training for infant school teachers and improved bathing and toilet facilities.

A library was created in 1836 for older boys and by the 1850s English grammar, geography, reading, writing and arithmetic were all part of the curriculum. As the result of a suggestion by John Brownlow, Secretary at the time, from the 1850s the children’s clothes were no longer made within the Hospital as part of training for boys, as tailoring was deemed to be harmful to the health of the young trainees.

A Boys’ Band was created in 1847 again at the suggestion of Mr Brownlow, and in 1854 the band performed at the Christmas pantomime at the Drury Lane Theatre. The creation of the band is quoted by Nicholas and Wray in their ‘History of the Foundling Hospital‘ as ‘the most important development of the activities of the children during the nineteenth century’. They highlight that this began a long standing tradition which some 100 years later resulted in the majority of the boys leaving the Hospital enlisted into regimental bands, with many going on to train at the army’s band training school Kneller Hall.

Few mothers were reunited with their children, despite records showing a large number of enquiries from mothers about their child’s welfare. Similarly, the Annual Report of 1898 states ‘many applications are received from persons anxious to adopt children, but these are not entertained’. It was not until well into the next century that significant advances were made to reform the organisation, alongside changes in society’s views of unmarried mothers and an emerging understanding of child development.

Read on to find out about the Foundling Hospital in the 20th century