On this day in 1741, the first children were admitted to the care of the Foundling Hospital by mothers desperate to give them better chances in life.
It had taken Thomas Coram 17 years of campaigning to create this place where babies abandoned on the streets of London could be fostered and then enter residential school for ten years before entering employment and being supported until they reached the age of 21.
Whilst much has seemingly changed in 280 years, there are now more young people depending on the support of the care system than ever before and young people face continuing challenges all too familiar to the generations who came before them.
A new way of thinking
It was a quite extraordinary achievement for Thomas Coram to create an entirely new type of institution for ‘foundlings’ which was at odds with the moral norms of the day. At the time, society saw illegitimate children as exemplifying the sin of their parents and mothers faced destitution because they were pregnant and unmarried.
Thomas Coram did not judge either mother or child and so many children were presented for entry that a lottery system had to be used to decide entry with a mother drawing a ball from a bag with the colour determining whether the child was admitted. A new name was given to the child as the mother was promised anonymity so she could also start a new life and meticulous records were kept in case she could ever return.
The stigma of illegitimacy
The Foundling Hospital found that there was a difficult line to tread to avoid the charity being accused of promoting ‘lewd behaviour’ amongst parents and in the 19th century this can be seen in the use of a petition system to decide entry, in which the ‘good character’ of the mother was tested and only first children were admitted.
The stigma of illegitimacy ran deep in the centuries that followed. The Foundling Hospital Pupils were prepared for jobs considered fitting to their station in life. There was no room for love and life was harsh but in his article Blank Child, Dickens described the overall well-ordered and relatively progressive institution. Charles Dickens often referenced the Hospital in his work, and John Brownlow in Oliver Twist shared a name with the then Secretary of the Hospital – the first Foundling Hospital pupil to hold the role.
Care in the 20th century
By the time of the Second World War, little had changed. Mothers still faced great difficulty in raising a child out of wedlock and children continued to be told that they could not expect more. Children were still being admitted without knowing why they were there or who their mothers were.
After the mass experience of evacuation during the war came the Curtis report and the 1948 Act heralding the move to family based foster care which dominates care today and the Foundling Hospital school closed in 1954. A decade later, the landmark drama Cathy Come Home shone a light on the continued poverty of single mothers and it was as late as 1989 that the Children Act and the United Nations Convention first recognised the right of children to be heard and their best interests to be paramount in decisions about them.
The care system as we know it today strives to protect young lives. It is characterised by many positive experiences for children living in foster families across the country but still the sense of stigma is felt by all too many young people who may not understand why they are there, experience multiple moves or achieve fewer qualifications.
This is why the young people who are part of the Coram Story of Care: Voices through Time programme, digitising our historic archive, are campaigning themselves to tell the #RealStoriesOfCare.
And to mark the first Care Experience History Month, Coram will publish a new survey of the public attitudes to care today. Perhaps now – on the eve of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and 280 years after the First Admission – we can come together to ensure every child has an equal chance in life.