The America effect

In this section

    In the early 1690s, a London merchant engaged the young Thomas Coram to sail to America and oversee the supply of cheap merchant ships for the ever-increasing cross-Atlantic trade. By 1693, we know that Coram was in Boston, where he met his future wife, and that in 1697 or 1698 he moved to Taunton, some 40 miles away, where he set up his own shipbuilding business.

    The ten years that Coram spent in America were to have a profound effect on his life. He seems to have relished being free of the restricions of English society and inspired by the opportunities the new country offered him.

    It was not an entirely one-way relationship though. Coram had an important influence on America in the shape of vigorous campaigning for the rights of minority groups. He also left a direct legacy of books aimed at encouraging the spread of Anglicanism.

    Little is known about Coram’s time in Boston except that it is where he met his future wife, Eunice Waite, the daughter of an established Boston family originally from England. She was a Congregationalist but there is no evidence of any friction over religion between them. Letters show that Eunice and Thomas Coram were happily married for 40 years, until her death after a long period of poor health. We also know that Coram got on especially well with Sir William Phips, a fellow shipwright and the first royally-appointed governor of Massachusetts. Phips had arrived in Boston to take up his post as governor in May 1691, when the city was in the grip of hysteria over witchcraft and the legal system could not cope with the numbers of people accused.
    Thomas Coram chose Taunton for his new shipbuilding business because  the deep water there meant that he could build large ships. Many of the Taunton townspeople had left England to establish a community in which all followed the same religious principles. Anyone who was not of the same religious sect was viewed with distrust. Coram was very outspoken, and his new neighbours did not welcome his fierce loyalty to the British Crown, nor his robust Anglicanism. For his part, Coram hoped that the inhabitants one day ‘should be more civilised than they now are.’ Religious differences between Coram and his neighbours 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. He frequently had to go to the Boston courts to receive a fair hearing as local magistrates, out of fear of their neighbours and/or personal enmity toward Coram, invariably ruled against him. His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. Coram left Taunton knowing that any legal rulings in his favour from the Boston courts about unfulfilled contracts would not be enforced by the local Taunton officials; further the claims lodged against him by local people for debts might well result in him being imprisoned. In 1703 he described his treatment by the town as ‘barbarous’, adding:
    I have reason to believe that they are some of the very worst of the creation, and to compleat and cloak their black action, have in their serpentine manner endeavoured to stigmatize my Reputation with the best of the country, and some of the Countrey Justices thereabouts have been so partial in their administrations.
    Much against his combative nature, he and Eunice returned to Boston and sailed for England. Despite his intentions – he did not sell his house in Taunton until 1742 - he never came back to America.

    Visitors to Taunton today can still see Thomas Coram’s home, at 2130 Water Street. It is privately owned and occupied and has changed little. Around 1700, Coram went into partnership with another shipwright and English inhabitant of Taunton, John Hathaway. They built homes next door to each other, and from them could oversee their jointly-owned shipyard and wharf. John Hathaway’s house, built a year or two later, is number 2120. Today the site is owned by the Taunton Yacht Club which bought the area known today as Coram Shipyard and Coram Wharf in 1895.
    Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard he established and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican/Episcopal church (the Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence as separate from, but allied to the Church of England). John Hathaway continued the business after Coram had left the town. Other yards were established along the bank of the deep-water channel, so much so that in the early 1700s, the area became a distinct town, known as Dighton. Trading ships left Dighton, travelling across the globe, importing from, and exporting to Europe, South America, and the West Indies. Coram left 59 acres of Taunton land from a court settlement to help found a Church of England in Taunton. In Coram’s typically robust style he said it should be used:
    …if ever hereafter the inhabitants of the town of Taunton should be more civilized than they now are, and if they should incline to have a Church of England built amongst them, or in their town…
    He left the land in trust with the King’s Chapel in Boston, where he worshipped, along with a substantial collection of books.  books became the basis for the parish’s ministry. By the mid-19th century, Taunton had grown to be a busy port. The townspeople were from a wide range of Christian denominations, including a strong and growing Episcopal community. The church took Saint Thomas as its patron, in part to honour Thomas Coram. The third and present St Thomas’ Church was consecrated in 1859, and was funded entirely by subscription. The church’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1978 was attended by the Bishop of London and representatives of the Coram Foundation.  Today the church archives are held in a room in the parish house.
    In 1989, when the Coram Foundation for Children celebrated its 250th anniversary, the Book of Common Prayer, given to St. Thomas’ Church by Thomas Coram, was returned to London on loan to the foundation for their celebration.
    Campaigning for children