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 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.