Today, inspired by Wendy Moore’s How to Create the Perfect Wife, I decided to pay a visit to The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, London. This relatively small museum opened in 2004 and explores the history of the UK’s first children’s charity, the Foundling Hospital.
In 18th century London, 75% of children died before they reached their 5th birthday – this startling fact greets you as you step through the door to the first exhibition room and sets the tone for a moving experience that opens one’s eyes to why this charity (which is still in operation today in the form of Coram) was so desperately important.
The Foundling hospital was first set up by a former sea captain called Thomas Coram. Upon returning home from America, where he had been living for twenty years, he was shocked to see the terrible conditions in which London’s poorer people lived. Most shocking of all, was the number of babies he saw being abandoned every day on the streets, on road sides and even on top of rubbish heaps. He decided that something must be done to save these innocent children’s lives. The problem was that, kind-hearted though he may have been, he lacked the financial means to bring his idea to fruition. He campaigned relentlessly for seventeen years and planned strategically whom he would approach to ask for help. The book in which he wrote this list of wealthy personages can be seen at the Foundling Museum with the names of several duchesses, dukes, countesses and so on, all written in neat little handwriting. Important in providing substantial support for Coram was the famous artist, William Hogarth and the composer, George Frideric Handel. Finally, in 1739, King George II granted permission for the scheme to go ahead and in 1741, the first babies were admitted to the hospital. As a visitor, you can go into the room that mothers would have been taken to when they wanted to give their baby up to the charity. The anguish that they must have felt and the miserable circumstances that may have brought them there; the heart-wrenching sense of their desperation seems still to hang in the air alongside the very clear understanding that this hospital was unquestionably a force for good.
Poverty, abandonment by the father, widowhood, the shame of illegitimacy and even crime were some of the reasons for why so many babies were abandoned in 18th century London. The Foundling Hospital provided somewhere for the babies to be taken, where they would be safe. Upon admission, every mother was questioned as to the reason for her bringing her baby there; if the reason was not deemed strong enough, then she was sent away still in possession of her baby. If the baby was accepted, then he or she was given a number, a new name, and a token which the mother was expected to provide in case she should ever want to reclaim her child. It would enable her to prove her identity. This was often a scrap of fabric cut from the infant’s clothes, though in a large glass case on the wall, there can be seen several other examples of the sorts of things that parents left as tokens for their children. This, to me, felt like the most tragic exhibit on display. When you look at this, you get a sense of the real people who had to do this. Some of the tokens are simple household items – thimbles, the arm of a doll, cards, a pot of rouge, coins – probably all that the mother could afford to give. Some of them were more personalised and included pieces of jewellery or coins with one side rubbed smooth so that a message could be engraved. These tokens suggest an intention of the parent to be reunited with their child should their circumstances ever change or at least, to let them know that they were loved. Sadly, few children ever did see their parents again. Most were apprenticed out when they were about nine years old – boys to the army and girls into service. Thankfully, there are records on display of what happened to some of the children, having been taken care of, provided with adequate meals every day and medical care so that they could survive, be discharged by the hospital and make their way in the world. In 1954, the Foundling Hospital placed their last pupil in foster care and, as I mentioned before, it remains today as a charity, continuing to help disadvantaged children in excess of the 25,000 it helped from the mid 1700s to the mid 1900s.
The Foundling Museum was Britain’s first public art gallery, to which artists have been donating their work in order to raise money for the cause since the 18th century. This is still the case today, and on your visit, you can see works by Hogarth, portraits of various notable personages from the hospital’s early days, a bust of Handel, a series of sentimental Victorian oil paintings depicting scenes from foundling life and several modern installations. One which I rather liked was called ‘Brontëan Abstracts’, by Cornelia Parker. On the top floor, you can see items to do with George Fridreric Handel, including the will which he wrote in his own hand.
The museum is open every day apart from Mondays and costs £8.25 if you are an adult wishing to see the permanent collection, though if you are a member of the National Trust, it is worth bringing your card along as you can enter for £4.25. It is a couple of pounds extra if you want to see the additional exhibition, which changes regularly. I really wanted to make the most of my visit and it took me about an hour and a half to walk around. I would thoroughly recommend this museum to anyone who is interested in historical social conditions, people’s personal stories from history, women’s history, art and of course, classical music.
For those who are interested, the web address from Coram is http://www.coram.org.uk/