280 years ago, on 25th March 1741, the Foundling Hospital opened its doors to admit its very first children. This was a proud moment for one person above all – our founder, Thomas Coram. Coram had been deeply moved by the sight of destitute children dead and dying on the streets of London, which had prompted his long-running campaign to secure support for the opening of an institution to provide a home for abandoned babies and infants. In 1739 King George II had signed the charter clearing the final obstacle to its establishment, and the Foundling Hospital, now known in its modern guise as Coram, was born.
From the outset, record-keeping at the new institution was meticulous and detailed, and our archive conveys a rich and often moving story of the lives of the thousands of children who were admitted and raised at the Foundling Hospital.
These records help us to understand the evolution in how children have been seen and cared for over the last 300 years, from the time of Thomas Coram himself to our work today as the Coram Group of charities, working and advocating for children, young people and their families.
The oldest documents in our archive are fragile and must be protected if they are to survive. We are delighted that, thanks to the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we are now embarking on Voices Through Time: The Story of Care – a four-year project to digitise more than 100,000 pages of our historical documents, from Thomas Coram’s efforts to create his charity in the 1720s to the turn of the 20th Century.
Alongside this digitisation process, we are today publishing the first online Timeline of Care beginning in 1668 (the year of Thomas Coram’s birth) to the present day, setting out key moments in the evolution of policies, practice, laws and social milestones affecting children and young people. This is a dynamic programme with new material being added over time and illuminated by the voices and creative projects of care-experienced young people today.
Many documents that we will be sharing through this project will make for tough reading. The plight of children on the streets in the 18th Century was bleak; nine in ten children in workhouses died before the age of five. While The Foundling Hospital was a pioneering alternative and progressive in its time, providing education and continuity of support into adulthood, life for its pupils was harsh by the standards of today. There is no doubt that society’s understanding of children and their emotional needs and the framework for their rights have evolved hugely for the better, but it may be a surprise how relatively recent much of that evolution has been.
Many of the documents in our archive demonstrate the agonising choices that mothers – in destitution and desperation – faced in seeking to ensure safety and stability for their child. The petition letters they wrote asking the Hospital to admit their children are poignant and affecting, as they explain the difficult and traumatic reasons why they felt unable to care for them themselves.
While the Governors and staff of the Foundling Hospital may have acted with the best of intentions and offered opportunities or support rarely available elsewhere, actions and decisions taken in the context of the past are often not those which we would consider appropriate today. For instance, children were not told their original names (where they were known) or details of their mothers, because of the promise of anonymity made to the mothers and because it was thought that this would give both they and the children the chance of a fresh start in life in the context of profound social stigma of the time.
When the Foundling Hospital was formed, the concept of emotional deprivation did not exist in its modern form. Physical chastisement was a feature of life for children in all aspects of life and some of the records shared highlight punishments that have rightly, if only latterly, been consigned to history with the banning of corporal punishment in UK state schools only finally implemented until 1986.
There is no doubting that Thomas Coram was a pioneering and tireless campaigner for children and their mothers and in this, he was out of step with his time. In the early 18th Century, Great Britain was establishing itself as a dominant colonial power, and heavily sustained by the buying and selling of human beings.
Our timeline will explore the links between those who helped to establish The Foundling Hospital and the slave trade. Many of those who became rich through this abhorrent practice included early Governors and benefactors of the Hospital, who saw no contradiction between their involvement in this iniquitous trade and their support for social advances at home.
The Voices Through Time: The Story of Care programme is working with more than 100 care-experienced young people to explore the lives and events of the past and to help to shape the future. They will be working on creative activities to tell their own stories, helping to challenge perceptions of young people in care today, a group often under-represented in public discourse and whose lives often remain misunderstood by the wider public.
This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to preserve this unique archive for future generations, and to illuminate the stories within it to achieve better understanding of the story of care. Thank you for your interest, and if you would like to get involved or know more, please contact us.