The story of Thomas Coram

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.

J. Brooke, Thomas Coram, in front of his hospital with an infant.

Campaigning for children

Thomas Coram was a champion for vulnerable children at a time when most people thought that helping ‘unwanted’ children would encourage promiscuity.

We don’t know whether there was a particular incident that aroused his compassion, or whether it was because of his staunch Anglican faith, or because he had experienced a difficult childhood himself after his own mother died when he was only three or four.

What we do know is that Coram was a determined campaigner for people who could not stand up for themselves and that he could not and would not ignore destitute children on London’s streets.

The idea was born for his petition to the king for a charter to create a foundling hospital that would be supported by subscriptions. 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.

Undaunted, and inspired by the role of French women in caring for foundlings in Paris, Coram decided to ask English noblewomen to lend weight to his petition and gain the interest of influential men along the way.

Coram’s idea to petition noblewomen to join his cause was a triumph. Not only did 21 ladies ‘of quality and distinction’ sign a petition, he also won the support of many aristocratic and influential men who, along with the ladies, helped turn the establishment of a hospital for foundlings into a fashionable cause.

All 21 ladies were Ladies of the Bedchamber to Queen Caroline and it appears she was supportive of Coram’s campaign. We know that Caroline was interested in the Foundling Hospital because she commissioned a pamphlet about the running of a similar institution for lone children in Paris. Before it was published, however, Caroline died.

Her husband, King George II was distraught but finally, on 17 October 1739, after 17 years of Coram’s campaign, he signed a royal charter. Governors were quickly appointed from those who had donated to the cause, and the work of the Foundling Hospital could begin.

The Foundlings, engraving from the original painting by William Hogarth 1697-1764

Coram had a vision in which foundling children were cared for and educated so that, ultimately, they could support themselves.

In this he was both humanitarian and ahead of his times. During his lifetime, it was widely believed that foundlings didn’t deserve charity because they were the product of immoral behaviour. And while workhouses did exist, it was argued that the act of receiving aid should be made unattractive to ensure only the truly destitute would apply. This included putting children to work as soon as possible.

As an experienced campaigner, Coram knew the importance of making his radical idea for a foundling hospital acceptable to existing and potential supporters. Accordingly, his campaign not only outlined the plight of foundling children, but also the benefits to society of removing them from the streets and creating useful citizens.

A list of children inoculated against smallpox at the Foundling Hospital on 26 August, 1772

© The Foundling Hospital records, London Metropolitan Archives

Children’s champion

After seventeen years and half’s contrivance, labour and fatigue I have obtained a charter for establishing a hospital for the reception, maintenance, proper instruction and employment of exposed and deserted young children.

Thomas Coram in a letter to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, 15 September 1739

In 1742, a year after the first child was received into the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram fell out with his colleagues and failed to qualify for the General Committee that managed the institution’s affairs.

But his vision for the protection and welfare of foundling children remained at the Hospital’s heart, especially in terms of promoting their health and giving them an education so that they could support themselves through work.

From the start, the governors of the Hospital went to considerable lengths to protect the children from the infectious diseases that were responsible for many deaths in similar charitable institutions.

Children entering the Foundling Hospital were screened and turned away if they showed any signs of infection. Following their admission, they were sent to wet nurses in the countryside to give them a good start. There they remained until they were five and six and returned to the hospital where they enjoyed a healthy diet including vegetables, meat, fruit and clean milk from the hospital’s own cow.

Mezzotint by R. Houston after A. Ramsay, Richard Mead, 1673-1754

Children were also inoculated against the endemic disease smallpox, probably on the advice of Coram’s old friend, Dr Richard Mead who, as well as being a pioneer of smallpox inoculation, was an influential governor of the Hospital and eminent physician. He played an important role in the early days of the institution, often attending to look after sick children and advising on their care. It was probably down to him that by 1756, of the 247 foundling children who had been inoculated against smallpox, only one had died of the disease.

During his campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital, Coram had stressed that once they were educated, foundlings could become useful members of society.

Accordingly, the children’s education was geared towards giving them skills to undertake and sustain an apprenticeship. Emphasis was placed on practical training, partly for its moral benefits but also to instil habits of industry. Practical skills of a domestic nature were particularly important for the girls. Both boys and girls were also taught to read and instructed in the principles of religion.

Unusually for the period, music also became a part of their education. Generally, music was thought to be an unsuitable subject for charity children. But the governors of the hospital thought that it would give blind and disabled children, who were unable to do manual labour, a means to support themselves. Over time, music was taught more widely throughout the Hospital with performances given to raise money.

The fact that foundling girls were taught to read was in line with Coram’s advanced views on the education of girls. In 1739, he said in a letter to the prominent American minister, Benjamin Colman, that it was as, if not more, important for girls to be educated than boys because they were more likely to be responsible for their children’s formation.

An Evil amongst us here in England is to think Girls having learning given them is not so very Material as for boys to have it. I think and say it is more Material for Girls, when they come to be Mothers, will have the forming of their Childrens lives and if their Mothers be good or Bad the Children generally take after them, so that Giving Girls a vertuous Education is a vast Advantage to their Posterity as well as to the Publick.

Thomas Coram in a letter to Benjamin Colman, 1737

“This is to certify to whom it may concern, that John King the younger of Newbury is willing to take as an apprentice Virgil Matthews, a boy belonging to the Hospital for the maintenance of poor and destitute young children. The above John King is a shoemaker, and is industrious and of good credit.”

Coram’s hope was that, given an education, foundling children, who had no family to support them when sick or old, would be able to earn a living and gain security. Work at the Hospital prepared them for this. The boys were employed in the garden or pumping water and mangling laundry while girls did all sorts of household work to make them fit for service.

Generally, the children were apprenticed from around 11 years old. The plan was for them to work on the land or at sea or in domestic service but, in reality, they were employed in a wider variety of occupations, in particular with London’s increasing numbers of tradesmen who were meeting the expanding capital’s needs.

Significantly, the Hospital maintained its contact with the foundling children while they were apprenticed – considering it a duty to care for them until they were discharged from apprenticeship in their early 20s. Apprentice masters had to provide references and registers kept by the Hospital documented where and to whom the children were sent where they were frequently visited by Hospital staff.

Some disabled children and those unfit for work remained at the Hospital. For example, one Blanch Thetford, admitted in 1758, was paid as a singer in the Hospital chapel. Later she also taught music to another blind foundling and remained at the Hospital until her death at the age of 75.

Thomas Coram and the America effect

Gezicht op Nieuw Amsterdam by Johannes Vingboons (1664)

Thomas Coram’s pioneering attitude and trailblazing work for children was no doubt influenced by his earlier life, particularly by the freedom and opportunities he experienced during time spent in Colonial America.

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

The ten years he spent there were to have a profound effect both personally and professionally. Along with establishing his business, he met and married his wife Eunice (see below), and also campaigned for the rights of minority groups in America. 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.

Thomas Coram chose Taunton for his new shipbuilding business because the deep water there meant that he could build large ships.

But Coram’s 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 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 or personal enmity towards Coram, invariably ruled against him.

His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. Despite his combative nature, he and Eunice returned to Boston and sailed for England and though he did not sell his house in Taunton until 1742, he never came back to America.

Image courtesy of The Charles E. Crowley Photographic Center at the Old Colony History Museum, Taunton, Massachusetts.

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 in 1895 bought the area known now as Coram Shipyard and Coram Wharf.

Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican/Episcopal church (the Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence to be separate from, but allied to the Church of England). He left 59 acres of land from a court settlement to help found a church for the future citizens of the town. He said:

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…

Twenty five years later, Thomas Coram’s wish was carried out: in 1728 a congregation of lay persons gathered and a small Church was built on the outskirts of town near the Three Mile River on what is now Tremont Street. The Church was named St. Thomas, in part to honour Thomas Coram. The current 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, as it was then known, 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 charity for our celebration.

Thomas Coram’s American projects

When Thomas Coram returned to England from America, he continued his relationship with the country in the shape of determined campaigning. Projects he was involved in included establishing a colony for the poor, the education of native Americans and relief for poor sailors stranded in London.

While in America, Coram had met and befriended the Rev Thomas Bray, the Anglican clergyman behind the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Bray was especially interested in setting up public libraries in Britain and America, and to establish colonial missions to native Americans. Coram was an enthusiastic supporter of Bray’s work, especially through the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which Bray founded.  Their close friendship continued on Coram’s return to London.

Before Bray died, he suggested a colony be founded for the ‘necessitous poor’ in South Carolina. Coram had by early 1730 become closely involved in this venture and went as part of an initial delegation to the Board of Trade to discuss the new settlement. He accompanied James Oglethorpe, MP and social reformer and another close associate of Bray, who eventually founded the colony of Georgia. Coram’s knowledge and experience were invaluable and he became a trustee in the venture.

Coram worked hard to make Georgia a success. He raised funds and attended meetings regularly about its progress. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees over their refusal to allow women equal rights of inheritance. This was deterring people from coming to settle in the colony and it offended Coram’s sense of fair play. Later, when the rules were amended, Egmont, a fellow trustee, wrote in his diary that, ‘Captain Coram, who was violent for female succession was much pleased with the intended act.’ Coram was also against slavery and at the same meeting, the trustees reaffirmed their refusal to allow slavery in the colony.

Thomas Coram promoted and supported native Americans, with whom he lived and worked when in America. He was especially concerned that native American girls were educated. This reflected a key theme in his plans for the Foundling Hospital in that girls, as well as boys, received an education; the general view at the time was that education was not as important for females. When two Mohicans came to London to apply to the king for redress after their people had been defrauded of their land, Coram took up their case and argued fiercely for them.

Coram and Jeremiah Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts from 1730, wrote regularly to each other, discussing developments in each other’s countries.  Coram often promoted Belcher’s interests and position as Governor in London.

Coram also corresponded for many years with Benjamin Colman, an associate of Bray who had travelled to London and who, on his return, took charge of a Congregational church in Boston. The Puritan/Congregationalists were by this time concerned to widen their appeal and their philosophy reflects those changes in attitudes. Coram and Colman exchanged letters regularly, and many of Coram’s letters survive in historical collections in the US.

Colman was very successful in securing patronage for Harvard. Coram sent him a gift of 24 text books to be used by professors and tutors of divinity at Harvard. Later, Coram learned from a Boston newspaper sent to him by his sister-in-law that Colman had ordained three missionaries to preach to the native Americans. Coram was encouraged by this – it was in keeping with his own concerns for the education and welfare of native Americans. He was also concerned to counter the influence of French Jesuit priests who were working among the native Americans in the disputed territory in Nova Scotia.  Coram offered to send more books, this time for the missionaries to use in their work and asked Colman to consult the president of Harvard about the acceptability of his plan. Within the year, a chest of assorted books had been sent out and Coram encouraged others to make similar donations.

Coram always had a special interest in the needs of those who had come to London from America. Concerned at the hardship suffered by New England sailors in the city, he set up a bank to provide relief for them and wrote to Colman about the problems they faced.

Resources for teachers

Are you a teacher, or do you work in a school? Our Captain Coram Citizenship Resource Pack links with National Curriculum subjects History, Art and English, aligns with PSHE & Citizenship education and fulfils Ofsted requirements. It tells the story of Coram’s founder Thomas Coram, the sea captain turned philanthropist, and his vision to improve children’s lives. The pack is aimed at children aged 9-11, includes six lesson plans, or can be tailored as a cross-curricular topic.

Download Captain Coram Citizenship Resource Pack flyer here.

Find out more about how Coram Life Education supports schools here.

Read children and young people’s stories here.