Thomas Coram was a philanthropist and campaigner whose greatest achievement was the Foundling Hospital. But this was just one of many philanthropic projects he pursued throughout his life.
Born in 1668 in Lyme Regis in west Dorset, Thomas Coram’s early life was tied to the shipbuilding industry. At 11, his father sent him to sea and later he was apprenticed to a shipwright before going to Boston in America in 1694 to establish a new shipyard. For the next 10 years, Coram lived in New England where he took advantage of the opportunities afforded him by the New World. But a staunch Anglican, he ran into trouble with his Puritan neighbours and there was even an attempt on his life.
When he returned to England with his American wife, Eunice, he was shocked to discover destitute and dying children on London’s streets. He decided to petition the king for a charter to create a foundling hospital supported by subscriptions to protect such children. But at first this met with no success. He found it impossible to gain the backing of anyone influential enough, and there was opposition to the idea because of attitudes to illegitimacy.
His lack of social graces, which offended some of the influential upper class, didn’t help. He once complained in a letter that he might as well have asked them to “putt down their breeches and present their backsides to the King and Queen”.
But a breakthrough came with the 1729 “ladies petition”, when he began targeting ladies of rank for donations. Ten years later, King George II signed the Foundling Hospital charter, and on the evening of March 25, 1741, at a temporary site, the hospital opened its doors.
The Foundling Hospital continued to flourish, in part because of Coram’s famous friends and supporters. The artist Hogarth donated a portrait of Coram to the hospital while the musician Handel held annual benefit concerts of his Messiah.
Coram remained a passionate advocate for girls’ education until late in life, producing a scheme that promoted the education of native American girls in the American colonies. But although Coram always hoped to return to America, he never did.
The legacy Coram left behind, however, continues to this day. The Foundling Hospital continued to help children until it was closed in the 1950s. Its work continues today as the charity Coram, which helps more than a million children and young people each year.