What is or was, a foundling? It is an historic term applied to children that were abandoned by their parents and cared for by others. When the Foundling Hospital was established in the 18th Century, around a thousand children a year were abandoned in London alone. Wretched mothers, due to illegitimacy or poverty, were forced to leave their babies in the streets, church steps or even rubbish heaps, condemned to their fate. The Foundling Museum tells their stories, allowing their voices to be heard. It is a glimpse into the past and a unique collection of historical importance.
I visited the Museum on 7.11.21, after it’s reopening (the collections were available online only during the pandemic closure). The museum is located in a quiet corner of Brunswick Square in leafy Bloomsbury. Adjacent is Coram’s Fields, the children’s park and sports ground. Outside is a statue of Thomas Coram (1668-1751), the man who was so moved by the desperate plight of destitute children in London, that he devoted 17 years of tireless campaigning trying to establish a safe refuge for them, offering an alternative to life on the streets and early death. The modern headquarters of Coram (now a children’s’ charity supporting those in need and a UK adoption agency) are also located here, continuing the important work that he established.
From 1741 when the first babies were admitted, to 1954 when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital and school cared for and educated around 25,000 children. The present Foundling Museum, which opened in 2004, was constructed in the 1930s on the original site of the Hospital and incorporates many architectural features from the eighteenth-century building.
There is no café onsite, but the Museum has a small shop stocked with books, prints and good quality gifts. Visitor toilets (also accessible for wheelchair users) are available, and there is lift access to all floors. There are knowledgeable volunteer guides in each room to answer any questions about the building and the collections. Group tours with staff are also provided (pre-booking required). The Ground floor of the Museum offers an excellent introduction to the history of the Foundling Hospital, the lives of the children in its’ care and the continued work of the charity today. The Royal Charter of 1739 (signed by King George II), enabling Coram to establish a hospital “for the care and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children” is on display, as are the original uniforms worn by the girls and boys. The ‘Foundling Voices Collection’ is a fascinating archive featuring recordings of former pupils of the Foundling Hospital School in the 20th Century. There were visitors listening to these intently during my time there – the museum also has interactive displays aimed at children.
What I found most poignant of all are the beautiful displays of the tokens left by the mothers with their babies, to identify them (if by chance they were able to reclaim them). Mothers handed over their babies in person. Hearts, hairpins, scraps of cloth, buttons, even a label from an ale bottle, were the only gifts they were allowed to leave with their child. The babies who were accepted were christened, given new names (to offer anonymity), and their birth names recorded. Most mothers were never reunited with their offspring. At one stage, a monthly public ‘lottery’ was held, when desperate women picked coloured balls to decide their child’s fate: a white ball meant they were successful, a red ball put them on the waiting list, whilst a black ball saw mother and baby turned away.
The grand 18th century staircase (reconstructed here after the destruction of the original Hospital site) leads to the Picture Gallery on the first floor. This elegant room contains many portraits (including ones by Millais and Gainsborough) of the Foundling Hospital’s Governors and benefactors over the years.
I was drawn immediately to the portrait of Thomas Coram himself, painted by its’ benefactor William Hogarth in 1740. Coram, with his kindly face, is depicted without a formal wig, the sea trade (the source of his wealth) in the background. To the right, however, partially hidden behind a curtain, is a mother and child.
Hogarth was an early and influential supporter of Coram’s campaign, and as a successful artist of his day, donated paintings, prints and drawings to the collections and encouraged other artists to do so. Please note that his painting ‘The March of the Guards to Finchley’, usually on display here, is currently on loan to the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain until March 2022.
Continuing from the Picture Gallery into the Court Room, I admired the elaborate decorations, with its’ fine Rococo plasterwork ceiling. It is like walking into the formal elegance of Georgian London. Originally this room was designed to hold meetings by the Hospital’s Governors and as a reception room.
Moving onto the Second Floor takes the visitor into a small but fascinating glimpse of the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally important archive of 12,000 items relating to the work and legacy of composer George Frideric Handel and his contemporaries, which are available for research. Like Hogarth, Handel was another celebrity philanthropist and supporter of the Foundling Hospital, becoming a Governor, and performing concerts of his oratorio The Messiah in the Hospital Chapel (now sadly demolished) every year until his death in 1759. The Foundling Hospital Anthem contained the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus from this work. His appearances during these concerts attracted so much interest that gentlemen were requested to attend without their swords, and ladies without hooped skirts, to maximise space for attendees!
I was intrigued to see Handel’s original, autographed will: he bequeathed his personal performance score of The Messiah to the Hospital, so that it would continue to benefit from fundraising performances after his death.
Now fully reopened, The Foundling Museum provides a variety of events year-round, including exhibitions, concerts, workshops and study days, talks, as well as commissioning contemporary works from ‘Foundling Fellows’ like Grayson Perry, Yinka Shonibare, Michael Morpurgo and Damon Albarn. Such initiatives, alongside it’s education and research programmes, continue the ethos of artist governors like Hogarth, helping to engage with the history of the Hospital and continuing its’ story into the present day. Most of the collection is available to browse online, and independent scholars can view documents from the archives in more depth for research.
The harsh fate of unwanted children over 200 years ago, uncommon then but mercifully relatively unusual today, is well documented in this small but fascinating museum. In my opinion it deserves to be better known. It is a glimpse into a world we should be thankful not to live in now. Attitudes towards illegitimacy and poverty may have changed, but too many children are still alone, in need or at risk. The original aim of the extraordinary Thomas Coram, to provide some hope for those in the most need, is as urgent today as it ever was.
40 Brunswick Square
London WC1N 1AZ
+44 (0)20 7841 3600
Nearest Tube: Russell Square (Kings Cross St. Pancras and Euston stations are 10-minute walk)
Tuesday - Saturday 10am – 5pm (Closed Mondays)
Sunday 11am – 5pm (pre-bookable timed entry tickets only)
Admission charges apply (Concessions available)
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I’m Lea Stone, and work as part of the dedicated library team for a Higher Education college in Greater London. When not surrounded by books I can be found lurking in cathedrals, galleries and museums around the UK, but my home city will always be my first love. I am endlessly fascinated by the evolving story of London: its history, architecture, landscapes, the most atmospheric pubs (London Gin and tonic for me if you’re buying!) and smaller museums. The medieval and Eighteenth-century periods are of particular interest, also Art Deco buildings.
Instagram / X: @LeaAStone