Foundlings

London has a super-abundance of museums, from the great national ones to the small quirky ones but one of the more recent additions to the long list has become one of my favourites. This is the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, and its director is Lars Tharp, one of the regular experts on the Antiques Roadshow.

The museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, London’s first home for abandoned children, which brought together three major figures from the eighteenth century. Thomas Coram, a retired shipwright and philanthropist, was horrified by the sight of so many very young children abandoned every year in the capital amid the dreadful social conditions then prevailing. He determined to do something to change the situation and spent the next 17 years working to raise funds for the establishment of a place to care for them. His dream was finally realised in 1739 when the hospital took shape. Before its closure in 1926, when the child care operation was transferred to the countryside, the hospital in Bloomsbury had housed over 27,000 of these children. The regime was spartan but infinitely preferable to the dreaded workhouses which had been the only alternative.

One of Coram’s supporters was the controversial artist, William Hogarth, whose pictures portrayed the social background which led to the abandonment of the children. He persuaded a number of his contemporaries to donate paintings and other works of art, making the hospital the first art collection open to the public, and its success in promoting British art led to the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768. The museum’s extensive art collection includes works by Gainsborough, Reynolds and Millais.

George Frideric Handel, the great German composer, who had made his home in London, was similarly moved by the plight of these children and wrote the Foundling Hospital anthem for his first concert there; he conducted regular benefit performances of Messiah in its chapel. In his will (the original is on display in the museum) he bequeathed a fair copy of Messiah to the hospital.

Because there were so many applications, it was not easy to get a child accepted by the governors of the hospital and records show that a high proportion had to be rejected. There is a pathetic collection of little objects – coins, buttons, jewellery, poems - that mothers left for their babies so that the hospital could match them with their children should they ever be in a position to reclaim them. Sadly the overwhelming majority never saw their mothers again.

The original foundling hospital was demolished in 1926 and the museum is housed in an attractive building close by which incorporates architectural features as well as Rococo interiors from the original hospital, including the Committee Room where mothers intending to leave their babies were interviewed.

The museum brings together social history, art and music and the atmosphere is wonderfully peaceful. Sitting in the large, lovely room at the top of the museum in very comfortable armchairs listening to Handel’s works one can easily imagine oneself back in the eighteenth century but with none of the drawbacks. In Brunswick Square there is even an enormous London plane tree which could well have been planted when the original hospital was being built.

Thomas Coram’s work continues through the Coram Family which provides innovative services relevant to children and young people today.

The museum is particularly child friendly and there is a large open space – Coram’s Fields – adjoining, where adults can only go if accompanied by a child. It’s easily accessible by bus or Underground and very well worth a visit.

Mary Vidal

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