The first children’s charity2018-11-27T16:00:16+00:00

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.

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.