Thomas Coram’s time in America

© Johannes Vingboons, via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Coram’s pioneering attitude and trailblazing work for children was no doubt influenced by his earlier life, particularly by his time spent in colonial America.

In the early 1690s, a London merchant engaged the young Thomas to sail to colonial America to oversee the supply of cheap merchant ships for the ever-increasing cross-Atlantic trade. By 1693, Coram was in Boston, and by 1698 he had moved to Taunton, some 40 miles away, where he set up his own shipbuilding businesses.

He met his wife Eunice Waite, during his time in Boston. Letters show that Eunice and Thomas Coram were happily married for 40 years, until her death after a long period of poor health.

He then moved to Taunton to establish his new shipbuilding business. But Coram’s new neighbours did not welcome his fierce loyalty to the British Crown, nor his robust Anglicanism.

Religious differences soon surfaced. These were played out in the courts where seemingly trivial issues quickly escalated; claims and counter-claims were made; violence was often threatened and sometimes used against Coram. His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. He and Eunice returned to Boston and sailed for England and though he did not sell his house in Taunton until 1742, he never came back to America.

Thomas Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican/Episcopal church (the Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence to be separate from, but allied to the Church of England).

When Thomas Coram returned to England from America, he continued his relationship with the country in the shape of determined campaigning. 

He suggested a colony be founded for the ‘necessitous poor’ in South Carolina. Thomas Coram had by early 1730 become closely involved in this venture and went as part of an initial delegation to the Board of Trade to discuss the new settlement. He accompanied James Oglethorpe, MP and social reformer who eventually founded the colony of Georgia. Thomas Coram’s knowledge and experience were invaluable and he became a trustee in the venture.

Thomas Coram worked hard to make Georgia a success. He raised funds and attended meetings regularly about its progress. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees over their refusal to allow women equal rights of inheritance. This was deterring people from coming to settle in the colony and it offended Coram’s sense of fair play. Later, when the rules were amended, Egmont, a fellow trustee, wrote in his diary that, ‘Captain Coram, who was violent for female succession was much pleased with the intended act.’ Coram was also against slavery and at the same meeting, the trustees reaffirmed their refusal to allow slavery in the colony, although this was overturned less than 20 years after Georgia was founded. 

Thomas Coram promoted and supported native Americans, with whom he lived and worked when in America. He was especially concerned that native American girls were educated. This reflected a key theme in his plans for the Foundling Hospital in that girls, as well as boys, received an education; the general view at the time was that education was not as important for females. When two Mohicans came to London to apply to the King for redress after their people had been defrauded of their land, Coram took up their case and argued fiercely for them.

Coram always had a special interest in the needs of those who had come to London from America. Concerned at the hardship suffered by New England sailors in the city, he set up a bank to provide relief for them.