Who was Thomas Coram?

Portrait of Thomas Coram by William Hogarth, via Wikimedia Commons

“I believe every one ought, in duty to do any good they can” Thomas Coram, 1738

Thomas Coram was a campaigner whose greatest achievement was the Foundling Hospital. But this was just one of many charitable projects he pursued throughout his life.

Born in 1668 in Lyme Regis in west Dorset, Thomas Coram’s early life was tied to the shipbuilding industry. At 11, his father sent him to sea and later he was apprenticed to a shipwright before going to Boston in America in 1694 to establish a new shipyard. For the next 10 years, Coram lived in New England. As a staunch Anglican, he ran into trouble with his Puritan neighbours and there was even an attempt on his life.

When he returned to England with his American wife, Eunice, he was shocked to discover destitute and dying children on London’s streets. He decided to petition the king for a charter to create a foundling hospital supported by subscriptions to protect these children. But at first he found it impossible to gain the backing of anyone influential enough, and there was opposition to the idea. This was due of social attitudes to illegitimacy and fear that providing for the babies of unmarried mother would encourage immorality, as well as a general attitude that it was not helpful to support ‘improvident’ parents unable to care for their children.

His lack of social graces, which offended some of the influential upper class, didn’t help. He once complained in a letter that he might as well have asked them to “putt down their breeches and present their backsides to the King and Queen”.

Undaunted, and inspired by the role of French women in caring for foundlings in Paris, Thomas Coram decided to ask English noblewomen to lend weight to his petition and gain the interest of influential men along the way. Ten years later, King George II signed the Foundling Hospital charter.

The first meeting of the governors of the Foundling Hospital took place at Somerset House. Coram, by then aged 70, made a moving speech to the Duke of Bedford, the Hospital’s new President:

“My Lord, Duke of Bedford,

It is with inexpressible pleasure I now present your grace, at the head of this noble and honourable corporation, with his Majesty’s royal charter, for establishing an Hospital for exposed children, free of all expense, through the assistance of some compassionate great ladies and other good persons.

I can, my lord, sincerely aver, that nothing would have induced me to embark in a design so full of difficulties and discouragements, but a zeal for the service of his Majesty, in preserving the lives of great numbers of his innocent subjects.

The long and melancholy experience of this nation has too demonstrably shewn, with what barbarity tender infants have been exposed and destroyed for want of proper means of preventing the disgrace, and succouring the necessities of their parents.

The charter will disclose the extensive nature and end of this Charity, in much stronger terms than I can possibly pretend to describe them, so that I have only to thank your Grace and many other noble personages, for all that favourable protection which hath given life and sprit to my endeavours.”*

On the evening of March 25, 1741, at a temporary site, the hospital opened its doors.

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 Thomas Coram was a determined campaigner and that he could not and would not ignore destitute children on London’s streets.

Thomas Coram was also a passionate advocate for girls’ education until late in life. During his time in America, he produced a scheme that promoted the education of native American girls in the American colonies. 

The legacy Thomas Coram left behind continues to this day. When the last residential pupils at the Foundling Hospital were placed with foster families in the 1950s, the renamed Thomas Coram Foundation for Children evolved to pioneer work in adoption, early years and parenting from our original London site.

New approaches to childcare and education were developed, informed by advances in child psychiatry which highlighted the importance of children’s emotional wellbeing and need for secure family placement. We continue today as the Coram Group of charities, helping more than a million children and young people every year.

*Quoted in Pugh, London’s Forgotten Children, page 30