The first children’s charity

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Emma Brownlow, The Christening, 1863, © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

On 25 March 1741, the first children entered the Foundling Hospital. Their mothers brought them to the Hospital to be cared for, in the hope that they would one day see them again.

The new Foundling pupils were baptised and given a new name. Children born out of wedlock suffered huge prejudice in their lives, and it was thought that a completely new start would give them the best chance of a good life.

The seal of the Thomas Coram Foundation, featuring a design by William Hogarth

A token left with a child by a departing mother

Token title © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

The creation of The Foundling Hospital

Having dedicated 17 years to campaigning on his ‘darling project’, Coram found that, once King George II signed the Foundling Hospital Charter in October 1739, things began to move quickly. A large Board of wealthy and influential Governors and Guardians was drawn up and a meeting called at Somerset House in London during which Coram presented the Charter to the Duke of Bedford, the Hospital’s first President.

While the Governors set to work on their plans for the new Hospital, the first children were admitted on 25 March 1741 to a temporary house in London’s Hatton Garden with a capacity for 30 children. 

At first, no questions were asked about the children or their parents, but mothers were encouraged to leave a distinguishing token such as a marked coin, trinket, or scrap of fabric, as an identifier should they ever be in a position to come back and reclaim their offspring. 

The children were baptised and given a new name. It was thought that a completely new start would give them the best chance of a good life.

In September 1742, the stone of the new Hospital building was laid on land acquired from the Earl of Salisbury on Lamb’s Conduit Field in Bloomsbury. It was designed in plain brick by Theodore Jacobsen with two wings – one each for boys and girls – and a chapel. 

Demand was so great that a lottery system was introduced whereby mothers were asked to draw coloured balls from a bag. If they picked a white ball, their infant was provisionally admitted; if they picked a red one, they could wait and see if one of the infants already accepted turned out to be ineligible because of an infectious illness. A black ball meant outright rejection.

Once received, children were sent to foster families in the countryside, where they stayed until they were about five years old. At the age of 16, girls were generally apprenticed for domestic service; at 14, boys were apprenticed into a variety of occupations, typically for seven years, and many were trained for military service. There was a small benevolent fund for adults.

Governors, friends and supporters

From the start, the Hospital had an executive ‘Committee of Governors’ and about 300 non-executive governors, who were prepared to use their influence to promote its cause. They were responsible for the running of the London site and for the foster mothers who looked after the children for the first five years of their lives.

Among and in addition to these were a number of musical, artistic and literary giants, such as George Frideric HandelWilliam Hogarth and later Charles Dickens. Other prominent supporters included Arthur Onslow, the longest serving Speaker of the House of Commons, and Thomas Coutts, founder of Coutts bank and a Governor in the 1800s.

They gave the Hospital credibility in the early days and helped raise much needed funds for its work. As part of this, they increased awareness of the plight of the Foundling pupils and publicised the work of the Hospital so that it could continue helping children long after their deaths.

The commitment of these figures helped to establish a creative tradition at the Foundling Hospital that is continued today in the work of Coram’s Creative Therapies service, which helps children and young people who have experienced trauma and neglect to understand and communicate their feelings.

We know from contemporary accounts that Thomas Coram argued forcefully and successfully that the new American colony of Georgia, which he helped to establish in 1732, should not be slave-owning. However, Thomas Coram’s views were in opposition to mainstream thinking. He lived at a time when the British Empire was growing in power and wealth, and slavery was integral to that. The men who became wealthy at that time did so either as a direct result of the slave trade, or from the profits of industries which relied on slave labour, such as sugar and tobacco.

Many of those men, especially those of the new mercantile class, wanted to use their wealth to bring about social reform. They believed that while giving money alone encouraged the poor to remain poor, social reform would give poor people the means to improve themselves.

From our modern perspective, immediately, we see the contradiction in such men campaigning for and funding social reform, while living off the profits of slavery and related trades. This was not a concern for the reformers – they saw themselves as enlightened and effective. They believed in working for the benefit of the British Empire as much as for the good of individuals, and made little distinction between these two aims.

Henry Thornton © National Portrait Gallery, London

Among the Foundling Hospitals’ founding governors is Robert Thornton, whose son John and grandson Henry, later also became governors. Across the generations, a major part of the family fortune came from the sugar trade.

John Thornton’s son Henry, a leading merchant banker, was also a close friend and cousin of William Wilberforce, who founded the campaign for the abolition of slavery. Both men were MPs and were key figures in passing early legislation to outlaw slavery.

Black lives at the Foundling Hospital

Children of Black and other ethnic minorities admitted to the Foundling Hospital in the 1700s are sometimes identifiable in the organisation’s archives. Ethnicity was not routinely recorded but there are occasional references: among the famous billet books, compiled for each child on admission, is one in which the baby is described as ‘having very tawny complexion’. At that time, ‘tawny’ meant ‘tanned, yellowish or dusky Colour’, so it is not clear even then exactly how the term was being used.

Black Peggy

Black Peggy in the Hospital billet book

Among the mothers who brought their children to the Foundling Hospital was ‘Black Peggy’, whose baby daughter was admitted in 1793.

In her petition, she says:

‘Being a poor unfortunate girl just arrived at the age of fourteen was on my voyage to England with Mrs Harding, unhappily seduced by my fellow servant James Murray by a false promise of marriage, but on our arrival at Ostend he knowing of my pregnancy left me friendless and unprotected. Nothing but the kind humanity of my mistress could have supported me through this scene of misery and repentance and who is still inclin’d to be my friend could I conceal my disgrace by your benevolence.  This gentleman urges me in the most supplicating manner to entreat and solicit your generous aid and protection to the unhappy infant of your very humble petitioner.’

Peggy’s child was admitted, renamed Jane Williams, and sent to nurse at Dorking. The records also show that Jane died a year later, and was buried in St Martin’s church in the town.

Thomas Jaycocks, Daily Advertiser 1722

In 1772, the Daily Advertiser newspaper carried a notice about Thomas Jaycocks, ‘a tawny boy’, who had run away from his apprentice master. The notice says that a reward will be paid to anyone returning him to his Master or to the Foundling Hospital, which suggests that he was apprenticed by the charity.

Another early reference is to a child admitted in 1778. She was renamed Ann Watson on entry to the Foundling Hospital, and her application was supported by Lady Spencer. Lady Spencer said that Ann’s mother was Black and that she had been abandoned by the father of her child. Ann is described as ‘a mulatto’, a term used at that time to describe someone of mixed race, especially with one with one Black and one white parent.

Eight years later, in 1786, Ann was reclaimed by her parents, Martha and William Green. They were recorded as being originally from Calcutta and Barbados respectively. William and Martha had married in 1780. The records say that the family was leaving London and ‘going with the Black people to Sierra Leone’. This is a reference to the new colony of Sierra Leone, established for people of African descent, including many former slaves – ‘Black Loyalists’ who had supported the British side in the American War of Independence.

This first attempt to establish the ‘Province of Freedom’, a British settlement in Sierra Leone, was a joint project by the British government and the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor. The committee was a charity established in 1786 and chaired by Jonas Hanway, who had a been a governor of the Foundling Hospital in 1756, and vice-president since 1772. People were reluctant to join the project. Hanway wrote of his surprise at this but few of London’s Black poor had ever been to Africa, and many feared that settling there would likely mean being captured and sold into slavery.

The colony was not a success; of this first group of 400 Black and 60 white people, only 64 survived to move to a new settlement in 1791. We do not know whether Ann and her parents were among those survivors.

Current research in the Foundling Hospital archives includes a project looking into the links between the Foundling Hospital and Black history, and will doubtless bring to light more stories of Black and minority ethnic children who are part of its history.

William Carter, Robert Grey (1904), © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Robert Grey was elected a Governor of the Foundling Hospital in 1878 and served as Treasurer from 1892 to 1914. Grey valued swimming as a recreational activity and was responsible for organising annual trips to the seaside and for commissioning a swimming pool – and an infirmary and mortuary – for the foundling children.

In 2017, the swimming pool and a mortuary were demolished to make way for a new building dedicated to children’s rights, the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. To ensure continuation at the site, materials were taken from them and incorporated in artistic works that are displayed there today.

Dr Ken Wilder, Grey Stone (2019)

Grey Stone (2019), by Dr Ken Wilder, is a permanent free-standing sculptural installation comprising two parts: a stone plaque, originally sited above the entrance door to the swimming pool, and a purpose-designed corten (weathering) steel support. The plaque, which reads, ‘Robert Grey, Treasurer, 1900’, contains fragments of the original mortar and fixings while the corten support is designed to rust over time so that, overall, the piece will show the effects of age, evoking the history that is so important to Coram.

Grey is also remembered in a 1904 portrait, painted by William Carter, which hangs on the main staircase of the Foundling Museum next to the Coram campus. Also, a temporary exhibition in the reception area at Coram celebrates the Victorian buildings which Grey commissioned, in particular the infirmary and mortuary, which were designed by Henry Currey (1820-1900), a pupil of Decimus Burton, and a strong advocate of the ‘pavilion principle’ of hospital construction introduced in the mid-19th century, and championed by Florence Nightingale. As well as being appointed the Foundling Hospital’s architect and surveyor, Currey was also architect of the original St Thomas’ Hospital.

The temporary exhibition includes a silver trowel, which is engraved with the text:

This trowel was used by Mrs. Robert Grey in laying the memorial stone of the new infirmary buildings at the foundling hospital, London, 28th JUNE 1893

It was fitting that Mrs. Grey laid the memorial stone, not least because their daughter Beatrice also became a hospital governor.

Wilder’s previous works include Skylights (2016), an in-situ art installation within the former mortuary, timed to coincide with the summer solstice.

William Hogarth, The Painter and His Pug, 1745 © The Tate Gallery, London

Benjamin Cole, A View of the Foundling Hospital, 1756 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Expansion of the Foundling Hospital

In 1756, the Government offered a grant so that more children could be received into the Foundling Hospital without the need for a lottery system. Several new branches of the Hospital were temporarily opened to cope with the large number of children during this period of indiscriminate admission. These were based at Ackworth, Shrewsbury, Aylesbury, Barnet, Chester and Westerham.

In 1801, the Governors changed the objective of caring for exposed and deserted children to that of caring for illegitimate children. They were admitted only if their mothers made a sufficiently strong case for their ability to make a new start in life. The children still went to foster mothers during their early years, returning to London for schooling at the Hospital and moving on to apprenticeships. 

Floor plan of the Thomas Coram School in Berkhamsted

Survey of London. Originally published by London County Council, London 1952

Foundling Hospital School and after

The coming of the railways and pollution prompted the Foundling Hospital to relocate to Redhill, Surrey, in 1926, while a new, purpose-built school, closely modelled on the original Foundling Hospital, was built in the countryside at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, and opened in 1935.

Children moved into the new building in 1935. Its design was almost identical to that of its predecessor; a central chapel flanked by two wings – the boys’ school and the girls’ school.

Although the London site was sold and many buildings demolished, the Hospital later bought back two and a half acres of land (where Coram’s charitable work still continues today). 

The school was home to hundreds of children looked after by the charity. The Second World War provided ample evidence of the impact of separation and loss on children. Learning from this and responding to research from leading practitioners, Coram began to develop new approaches to childcare and education which emphasised children’s emotional wellbeing and the importance of life in a family. The last children to live permanently as boarders left the school in 1954, and the building was sold to Hertfordshire County Council.

Today, the building is known as Ashlyn’s, a grant-maintained co-ed state school. The dormitories have been converted into classrooms and there is no strict segregation of girls and boys. Shown here are a few of the many features from the school’s early days.

Thanks to Lydia Carmichael, chairman of the Old Coram Association.

Coram’s pioneering work in adoption, early years and parenting continues from our original London site.  Find out more in our section How we do it.

The Foundling Hospital in Redhill, Surrey

© Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

New approaches to childcare and education

The school in Berkhamstead was home to hundreds of children looked after by the charity. Learning from evidence during the Second World War of the impact of separation and loss on children and responding to research from leading practitioners, the charity began to develop new approaches to childcare and education which emphasised children’s emotional wellbeing and the importance of life in a family.

Following the 1948 Children Act, pupils were taken back by birth mothers or found homes with foster parents. The last children to live permanently as boarders in Berkhamsted left the school in 1954, and the building was sold to Hertfordshire County Council.

Today, the building is known as Ashlyn’s, a grant-maintained co-educational state school. The dormitories have been converted into classrooms and there is no strict segregation of girls and boys. Shown here are a few of the many features from the school’s early days.

The school still contains stained glass windows, a staircase and monuments from the original Foundling Hospital in London.

Royal visit to The Foundling Hospital

The end of institutional care

For those born after the Second World War, it can be difficult to understand some of the attitudes held by society in the first half of the 20th century, when the Foundling Hospital was providing institutional care.

The experiences of some of those former pupils, and those who were interviewed through the Foundling Voices project, such as the separation from foster families, corporal punishment and the emotional deprivation suffered at school can be shocking to us now. However, when viewed in the context of the time, they were not as unusual as might be thought.

In the first half of the 20th century many families experienced separation and loss. Infant mortality was high, and children were commonly sent away to school, often at a very young age. At its peak, some 250,000 children were educated away from home. Until the 1940s, when psychologist John Bowlby charted the damaging impact of taking children from their families and putting them in institutions, there was little research into the emotional impact of separation on children.

Until the 1960s, the regimes of most schools, including the well known public schools, and other institutions were spartan. Single sex education, large dormitories, loyalty to small competing units such as houses, corporal punishment – even by senior prefects, supervision duties allocated to older boys, religious observance and military cadetship, were all features of what were generally rigid routines and structures.

The repression of emotional feeling was considered a valuable virtue. Even as late as the 1960s, HM School Inspectors were criticised for ignoring the social aspects of boarding school life – or having any methodology to assess it - despite growing concerns among psychologists about its detrimental long-term effects on children’s personality development. In this context, the regime of the Foundling Hospital Schools would have seemed ‘normal’ to many. The main difference being, that the children had no families to champion their cause, or to return to during the holidays.

These social attitudes led to further complications for 'Coram' children who were brought up with no knowledge of a birth family. The governors were aware that mothers applying to the Foundling Hospital had made the best plan they could for their child. Mothers had the right to enquire about their child and in post-war years, mothers could also apply for an introduction. However, children were kept unaware of any communication from their mother, in the belief that this would be too confusing and complicated to manage. When introductions between mother and child were arranged, the primary consideration was the mother’s circumstances rather than the emotional needs of the mother and child concerned.

To a generation aware of the inheritance of the Workhouse and Poor Law system, and the limited opportunities available to poor and abandoned children, 'Coram's' children would not necessarily have been seen as deprived rather as having gained some advantage over others. Some workhouse provision described in the Curtis report of 1946 and the residential hospitals and nurseries visited by the child psychologists Jack and Barbara Tizard and social researcher Maureen Oswin in the early 1970s were truly horrific, every bit as bad as those portrayed 100 years earlier by Charles Dickens.

Before the First World War, writer Henry Mayhew’s great poverty survey showed that gangs of children lived rough in London and even post Second World War, many people lived in overcrowded accommodation, shared beds, died prematurely and were subject to authoritarian regimes and bullying in day schools, national service and at work. At the outbreak of the Second World War when thousands of London children were evacuated to the country, children such as those at the Foundling Hospital School, who were already in a stable and safe environment, would have been seen as relatively lucky.

In the 1960s, unease increased about the value of much residential education, whether for the rich or for children in need. The inability to provide unconditional love and the isolation from the outside world, while helpful to public school elites, were identified as dysfunctional for deprived children. Concepts such as total institution, institutionalisation, emotional deprivation and lack of attachment became professional parlance. On these criteria, most boarding schools came out badly. The public schools quickly adapted to become the modern educational establishments they are today. Many welfare schools tried to change by sending children out to local schools (or in Coram’s case admitting local children), but few had sufficient resources to alter things radically, especially as voluntary donations and public subsidies were often diminishing.

As a result, most institutions closed as alternative care arrangements were made. Some sold valuable land and used the money to support new, non-residential activities. Schools for offenders remained until the 1990s (and many of the adolescents they sheltered now enter young offenders institutions), but the general drift was towards family support and foster care as and when needed. The decision of the Coram governors to cease provision of institutional care in 1954 was, therefore, ten to 15 years ahead of thinking.

Prepared with the help of Roger Bullock, Fellow, Social Research Unit at Dartington and Roy Parker, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, University of Bristol

Coram today

Val Molloy, an experienced social worker with Coram, who works with former Foundling Hospital pupils in supporting them to find their birth families, says:

"The Foundling Hospital had started as a fundamentally benevolent institution and in many practical respects, such as education, nutrition and medical care, offered above average care when compared with that received by many working-class children of the time.

What was lacking was throughout all social care institutions at the time, simply because the body of theory and research that has led to our present day understanding of child development had not yet taken shape. Explanations of attachment and loss and theoretical concepts such as ‘identity’ had not yet been established and generally accepted."

The Old Coram Association was set up in 1947 to provide an opportunity for former Foundling Hospital pupils to keep in touch with each other and continues today, generously supporting the work of Coram.

Following the 1975 Children Act and 1976 Adoption Act, Coram was able to provide former pupils with similar information to that now available to all adopted people – their birth certificate and a history of their parental background, prepared by a social worker using the mother’s original papers. Today Coram offers a birth records and counselling service for former pupils and family descendants of the Foundling Hospital. With the support of an experienced social worker, the original petition or application to the governors is shared, together with the mother’s name and the name she gave to her child.

Coram has always been conscious of the importance of learning from the past for the benefit of vulnerable children now and in the future. A key finding in the charity’s research, and one that underpins much of Coram’s continuing success in adoption today, is the importance of ongoing support for foster and adoptive families.

From our campus on the original site of the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury, Coram now runs one of the largest and most successful voluntary adoption agencies in the UK. Coram’s adoption service finds stable loving families for children in greatest need. Our specialist staff carefully match children in local authority care with adoptive families, who are given high quality preparation and training so they can give a child the life time of love and support they need.

Visit our charity website to discover how Coram continues today.