There are many small museums in London that aren’t on every visitor’s radar, and for that matter, many a Londoner. One such museum is The Foundling Museum.
This unique little museum’s story begins back in the early 18th century with a sailor named Thomas Coram, who after a life’s work in the New World of America, had ostensibly returned to London to enjoy a nice quiet retirement. This as you can imagine, was not to be the case. Upon returning to the capital, Coram was appalled by the number of destitute and dying children that literally littered the streets. Not one to rest on his laurels, Coram took it upon himself to rectify the situation and spent the next 17 years campaigning for the establishment of a Foundling Hospital; a place where these children could be brought, cared for and equipped with the necessary tools to see them through adult life and create what was termed 'useful citizens'.
On October 17th, 1739, King George II signed a charter to establish a hospital for the ‘maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’. Realising that the fashion for charity and benevolence amongst wealthy aristocrats could greatly help his cause, Coram teamed up with two unlikely champions; the artist and satirist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel who between them donated paintings and conducted benefit concerts in an effort to raise much needed funds. The Foundling Hospital, thanks to Hogarth became London’s first public art gallery.
In 1741, Coram fell out with his own board of governors and ceased his involvement with the hospital, ironically the same year that it received its first foundlings, but he did however succeed in setting up a charitable foundation which is still going strong today.
The hospital itself was moved out of London in 1926 and finally closed in 1954 after 250 years of operation having cared for over 25,000 children. Changing its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, the charity continues to help children, young people and their families.
The museum, as you would expect, details the fascinating history of the Foundling Hospital and the children who passed through its doors. The collection includes paintings, sculptures, prints and manuscripts as well as a room dedicated to Handel, but perhaps the most poignant items are the foundling tokens. Children brought to the hospital were given new names, so parents or those who deposited the child were required to bring with them a small token, something unique that could be kept safely locked away and only retrieved should a parent wish to re-claim their child. It was a very simple form of identification, but gives an incredibly personal insight in to the lives of those people who deposited children at the Foundling Hospital and how little they had in terms of material possessions. In a way, each child is reduced to a coin, a pin, a thimble or a theatre ticket stub, yet means so much more.
If you’d like to find out more about Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital, then the Foundling Museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, and you’ll find it just next to the Brunswick Centre and not surprisingly Coram Fields. The nearest Underground station is Russell Square. In an attempt to create 'useful citizens' many of the boys brought to the hospital joined the military. The Foundling Hospital currently have an exhibition entitled Foundlings at War: Military Bands.
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