The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Museum

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Located on the site of London’s first home for abandoned children, the Foundling Museum tells the story of this institution and explores the history of the children who lived here.

History of The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. London had high levels of poverty and parents who were unable to care for their babies due to poverty or illegitimacy had few options. Many chose to abandon them in the street – with an estimated 1,000 babies a year abandoned in London. Practical action was needed.

After 17 years of tireless campaigning, Thomas Coram received a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739, which enabled him to set up his Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity in Bloomsbury, London.

Artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel both helped establish the Hospital as one of London’s most fashionable venues. Hogarth encouraged leading artists to donate work which helped establish the UK’s first public art gallery, and Handel donated an organ and conducted annual benefit concerts in the chapel – setting a template for ways the arts can support philanthropy.

In the early 1920s, a decision was made to relocate the hospital to a purpose-built facility in Berkhamstead due to London’s expansion and pollution, and the original building was torn down. The Thomas Coram Foundation built a new headquarters at 40 Brunswick Square between 1935-1937, on the site of the Foundling Hospital, incorporating many architectural features from the original 18th century building.

Since the first babies were admitted in 1741, to 1954 when its last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated around 25,000 children.

The Foundling Museum was established as a separate charitable organisation in 1998, and opened in 2004 following refurbishment.

The Foundling Museum today

As well as collections, artefacts and photos looking at the stories of the children themselves, the Foundling Museum also contains an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and prints, donated by the many artists who were patrons of the institution.

In addition to Hogarth’s paintings, works found in the museum’s two collections (the Foundling Hospital Collection and the Foundling Museum Collection) include those from artists Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Francis Hayman, Joseph Highmore, Thomas Hudson, Allan Ramsay and John Michael Rysbrack.

Among the most poignant of the museum collections is actually that of the foundling tokens. Upon the admission of a child, mothers would pin tokens (often everyday objects, such as buttons) so that their children would be recognised as their own if the mothers ever went to pick them up – sadly few did. While the practice of admitting children with tokens ceased in the late 19th century following a more sophisticated system of admission (such as issuing the mothers with receipts), a large collection of these original tokens can still be viewed.

The Museum also holds a number of events and talks throughout the year. The Foundling Hospital itself continues today as the children’s charity Coram.

Getting to The Foundling Museum

The Museum is less than 5 minutes’ walk from Russell Square underground station, and King’s Cross St Pancras and Euston stations are approximately 10 minutes’ walk. The nearest buses are the 7, 59, 68, 91, 98, 168 and 188 from Russell Square Station.

The Museum is approximately 30 minutes’ walk from Charing Cross, 45 minutes’ walk from Liverpool Street Station, 40 minutes’ from Waterloo Station, and around an hour from Victoria and Paddington Stations.

The Foundling Museum includes history and artifacts of the Foundling Hospital. The creation of the hospital began as a campaign in 1720 by sea captain Thomas Coram to relieve the plight of abandoned children. Eventually, in 1739, a charter for a foundling hospital was granted by King George II. Over the years the charity was supported by notables such as Handel, Hogarth and Charles Dickens..

The museum holds a number of exhibitions and displays and it is well worth checking the website ⇒ , the hospital history ⇒ and Coram’s Charity history ⇒.

King George II by John Shackleton

The hospital was based on well meaning intent and saved many young lives. Nevertheless, life could be harsh in a stern regime especially for boys, as told by the harrowing tale of Tom Mckenzie ( The Last Foundling ⇒ ).

Although perhaps not all the time.

Foundling Girls in the Chapel by Sophia Anderson

The museum contains numerous works of art donated by the artists.

The March of the Guards to Finchley by Hogarth

Hetty Feather was a temporary exhibition based around the heroin’s exploits at odds with the strictures of a foundling’s life. The stories have been in book and TV form.

The young patients at Great Ormond Street Hospital, inspired by the Hetty Feather stories and the lack of kindness that they expose, produced a number of art works telling of the kindness that they receive in more modern times. Some are on show at the Foundling Museum. This one caught my eye.

The Kindness Scale.

I have always believed and always observed that when children are treated with wisdom and shown kind example then they show us the the true nature of humanity. Another example that kind nature being here ⇐ and more of the past that made the present in Wheels on Fire ⇐ .

To use the sortable table, click on the labels at the top of each column to sort that column in alphabetical order click again for reverse alphabetical order.

Museum dedicated to the lives and works of the baroque composer George Frideric Handel and the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who lived in adjoining houses two centuries apart

    , closed in 2013 (now known as the V&A Museum of Childhood) , closed in 2014 (collections moving to the Science Museum in summer 2015) [26] closed in 2018 and seeking new venue [27][28] , closed Wandsworth location in 2014 and seeking new venue
  • Erith Museum [29] , closed in 2016, collections in storage for proposed Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre (now part of the Natural History Museum) (collections now at the Victoria and Albert Museum) , Woolwich
  • Heritage Motor Museum, Syon Park (collections now at the Heritage Motor Centre in Warwickshire) [30] (collection moved to the Jewish Museum London) (some collections now at the Science Museum)
  • London General Cab Company Museum, Brixton [31] (collections now at the Museum of London)
  • Museum of British Transport, Clapham (collections now at the National Railway Museum (York) and the London Transport Museum) [32] (collections now returned to the British Museum) (collections now at the British Museum) , closed in 2011 , closed in 2001 and collections moved to now-defunct Firepower: The Royal Artillery Museum collections in storage for proposed Salisbury Plain Heritage Centre , no longer open to the public No longer open to the public closed in early 2019. Used to contain displays relating to the history of the theatre, costumes, music, theatrical effects, dioramas, and a recreation of a 17th-century printing press (collections now at the Victoria and Albert Museum) [33] , no longer hosts exhibits

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) publishes monthly visitor figures for the public sector museums and galleries which it sponsors, which include most of the leading museums in London.

The most popular London museum in the private sector is The Sherlock Holmes Museum.

The DCMS totals for the financial year to 31 March 2008 were as follows: [34]

    and Tate Britain – (see note) 6,769,949 – 6,037,930 – 3,914,000 – 3,613,953 – 2,711,680 – 2,280,759 – 1,765,814 – 1,645,680 – 759,571 – 477,894 – 335,349 – 332,844 – 316,992 – 306,600 – 258,941 – 100,834 – 93,427 – 80,352 – 6,852 (closed permanently in August 2007)

The majority of government-funded museums stopped charging admission fees in 2001 [35] and, although this was challenged in 2007, [36] this has remained the case. Following the removal of admission charges, attendances at London museums increased, with a large percentage of the 42 million annual visitors nationwide. [37]

Built on the Foundling Hospital’s original site, its purpose today is to preserve and display the Foundling Hospital collection and also to look after the Gerald Coke Handel Collection.

Sarah, mum of two from Barnet


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Until the twentieth century, many women spent most of their adult years pregnant, yet pregnancies are seldom apparent in surviving portraits.

Even the mystery woman in Jan van Eyck’s famous 1434 Arnolfini Portrait is thought by most art historians to be wearing copious folds of expensive cloth rather than carrying a child.

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The earliest portrait featured in Foundling’s exhibition of the depiction of pregnancy through paintings, prints, photographs, objects and clothing from the fifteenth century to the present day is Hans Holbein II’s beautiful drawing of Sir Thomas More’s daughter, Cicely Heron, made in 1526-7.

Sketched from life, it is a rare, clear-eyed, yet subtle observation of a pregnant woman in elite clothing. There was also a brief vogue for pregnancy portraits of ladies of the elite around the late Elizabethan and early Stuart periods – as exemplified by Marcus Gheeraerts II’s 1620 Portrait of a Woman in Red.

Mary Beale, Self-portrait of Mary Beale with her husband Charles and son Bartholomew, c.1660 © Geffrye Museum, London .

Hans Holbein II, Cecily Heron, daughter of Sir Thomas More, c.1527 Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

G H Harlow, Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, 1814 © The Garrick Club

At a time when a wife’s principal role was to bear as many healthy heirs as possible to perpetuate and extend the family line, its name and influence, experts believe such a portrait would act as a form of visual evidence of anticipated dynastic success.

At the same time, the childbirth process was potentially so hazardous that the portrait might also have acted as a record of the features of a beloved individual who could shortly die.

Gheeraerts’ portrait appeared in the same era as the ‘mother’s legacy’ text – in which a woman wrote a ‘letter’ for the benefit of her unborn child, in case she should not survive her confinement. An example on show is the manuscript written by Elizabeth Joscelin in 1622 for the child that she was carrying.

Maternal mortality is also powerfully represented by George Dawe’s 1817 portrait of the pregnant Princess Charlotte, the heir to the British throne, wearing a fashionable loose ‘sarafan’ dress. Charlotte died in childbirth, in November that year. Alongside is the actual surviving garment, lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that in many pre-twentieth-century works in the exhibition, the sitter’s pregnancy has been edited out?

A mezzotint made after Sir Joshua Reynolds’s full-length portrait of Theresa Parker, for example, shows no visible sign of her pregnancy, in line with conventions of the time, despite rich documentary evidence that by her second sitting in February 1772, Theresa was heavily pregnant.

A portrait of the celebrated eighteenth-century actress, Sarah Siddons, shown in the role of Lady Macbeth, similarly shows no sign of her pregnancy even though she famously played the role until the final weeks of her pregnancy.

William Hogarth, detail The March of the Guards to Finchley, 1750 © The Foundling Museum

Princess Charlotte’s Russian-style Dress c. 1817 Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Textile Panel with Embracing Figures c.1600 © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

By the turn of 19th century Augustus John’s c.1901 full-length portrait of his wife, Ida, must therefore have seemed astonishingly transgressive to contemporary viewers, as it clearly depicted her as pregnant.

In fact, as the exhibition reveals, it was not until the later twentieth century that pregnancy stopped being ‘airbrushed out’ of portraits.

In 1984 the British painter, Ghislaine Howard, produced a powerful self-portrait of herself as heavily pregnant, breaking with the tradition of most female portraits being made by male artists, from a male point of view.

But the watershed moment occurred internationally in August 1991, when Annie Leibovitz’s photographic portrait of the actress Demi Moore, naked and seven months pregnant, appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. The image was considered so ‘shocking’ that some retailers refused to stock the issue.

Nevertheless, it marked a culture shift and initiated the trend for more visible celebrations of pregnant bodies – especially nude ones. In 2017 Leibovitz returned to the theme, photographing the pregnant tennis champion, Serena Williams, naked, for Vanity Fair’s August cover.

More recent images, which often reflect increased female agency and empowerment, still remain highly charged.

The final photograph in the exhibition, by Awol Erizku, was commissioned by the singer, Beyoncé Knowles, who posted it on Instagram on 1 February 2017. Erizku’s iconographically complex portrait of Beyoncé, pregnant with twins, veiled and kneeling in front of a screen of flowers, became the most liked Instagram post of that year.

In the centuries’ old history of the female portrait, could it be that Beyoncé is one of the first artists to have really succeeded in taking ownership, not just of representations of their pregnant bodies, but also the distribution of their portraits?

Ghislaine Howard, Self Portrait Pregnant, 1984 © Ghislaine Howard

Thomas Watson, after Joshua Reynolds, The Honourable Mrs Parker, 1773 © Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Chantal Joffe, Self-Portrait Pregnant II, 2004 © Chantal Joffe Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro, London/ Venice

The exhibition is curated by Professor Karen Hearn FSA, previously the curator of sixteenth and seventeenth century British art at Tate Britain and now Honorary Professor at University College London, and forms part of the Foundling Museum’s ongoing programme of exhibiting art that reflects its mission to celebrate the power of individuals and the arts to change lives.

Portraying Pregnancy is at the Foundling Museum from January 24 to April 26 2020


The Foundling Museum

London, Greater London

The Foundling Museum is a force for change. We bring past and present together to stimulate imaginations and enrich young lives. With a campaigning spirit and the courage of our convictions, we celebrate the work of artists and inspire people to take positive action that transforms the lives of children&hellip


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‘Fallen Women’ at the Foundling Museum

On my first visit to London’s Foundling Museum, which tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first children’s home (established by Thomas Coram in 1739), I was fascinated by the tokens that mothers left behind—scraps of fabric, coins etched with names and dates, children’s shirts torn in two so that they could perhaps be matched up again later. These tokens seemed like rare traces of the women who left them. While I learned much during that visit about the children, I learned little about their mothers. The Museum’s recent exhibition, ‘Fallen Women,’ which was on display from 25 September 2015 to 3 January 2016, attempted to tell the mothers’ stories for the first time.

The exhibition focused on unmarried mothers who tried to get their children taken in by the Foundling Hospital in the the mid-nineteenth century, a time when the ‘fallen woman’—a woman who was seen to have compromised her chastity by giving in to seduction—became a popular subject in Victorian art. An entire exhibition could have been devoted to telling the stories of vulnerable and working-class women who were deceived and abandoned by men, and deserted by family and friends, women whose proof of sin was written on their bodies. Yet in ‘Fallen Women,’ the Foundling Museum also attempted, rather ambitiously, to explore the depiction of fallen women in period art.

Henry Nelson ONeil, ‘A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris’, 1855 © The Foundling Museum

The exhibition showcased mothers’ voices using the petitions they wrote in the hope of having their babies accepted to the Foundling Hospital, as well as audio installations created for the exhibition based on the petitions. These handwritten petitions—both accepted and rejected—sat alongside Victorian artworks. The incorporation of paintings and drawings was especially appropriate, since fine art has been a part of the Hospital’s history from the beginning.

While many countries in continental Europe established orphanages in medieval times, the stigma of illegitimacy long prevented the establishment of orphanages in Britain. Thomas Coram campaigned for almost 20 years before he was able to open his Foundling Hospital. One of his major sources of support was the artist William Hogarth, who donated paintings and convinced other artists to do likewise. These remarkable donations made the Foundling Hospital both England’s first public art gallery and one of its most fashionable charities.

In this exhibit, however, the artwork and the archival materials sat somewhat uneasily together. While there were a few attempts to intermingle the two, the main room of the exhibit consisted first of paintings, then a cluster of vitrines at the back with archival pieces. This arrangement epitomised an unresolved tension in the exhibit between the roles of history and art. Do the first-person accounts of real women ‘serve to show us the realities beyond the Victorian mythology,’ as the Financial Times review would have it? Or can both historical documents and creative works, when interpreted alongside each other, yield a greater understanding?

The exhibition booklet’s introduction by the curator, art historian Lynda Nead, claimed,

the narratives of these images share many elements of the stories in the Foundling petitions they depict respectable women who “fall” because they are out in the city, lose their money or family homes and are abandoned by the fathers of their babies.

Yet many of the works displayed were less narratives than snapshots, either of a fallen woman or a woman on the brink of falling – either figuratively into sin or literally, off a bridge, as in George Cruikshank’s 1848 etching of a woman committing ‘self-murder’. Some diptychs fast-fowarded straight from the passionate beginnings of illicit romance to its tragic ending. Other artworks showed us images of smiling, happy women playing with their children, examples of ‘the angel in the home.’

‘The Drunkard’s Children’ by George Cruikshank. 1848. Glyphograph, part of a folding book. Published by David Bogue of London. (British Museum Creative Commons)

The mothers’ petitions seem to complicate these stereotypical portrayals by showing us real stories. Women described how they were ‘seduced’ (we would often call it ‘raped’) by strangers, acquaintances, supposed friends and fiancés. One met the father of her child at a singing class run by a church organist. He offered to take her somewhere to practice, but when they arrived, ‘there was no pianoforte but a bed. I wished to leave but he prevented me and kept me for some time.’ Another was attacked by a lodger. She writes, ‘I struggled with him until I lost all power and he then effected his purpose.’ Others were seduced by men who had promised marriage.

Petitioners had to relate these experiences to an all-male panel at the Foundling Hospital that would search for inconsistencies and ask intimate questions such as ‘In what manner did your acquaintance with the father of your child commence?’ and ‘Was the criminal intercourse repeated?’ The Hospital panel was looking for reasons to reject these unfortunate mothers. It had always been short of space. In the early nineteenth century, the Hospital announced that it would only accept the illegitimate babies of first-time mothers who were considered to be redeemable.

Nead’s introduction describes how this pressure shaped women’s petitions:

[Mothers] knew that they had to tell their stories according to prevailing assumptions about guilt, desire, love, respectability and repentance and convince the Governors that if their babies were accepted they would be able to restore their social position and recover their moral respectability.

Nead emphasises that these historical documents are constructions—‘stories’, not glimpses of reality—suggesting that they, like the artwork, require interpretation.

Yet a later contribution to the booklet by Margaret Reynolds states that, in contrast to the artwork, the documents can capture ‘truth’:

The nineteenth-century stories and pictures of the ‘fallen woman’ tell one version of the tale but it is a skewed one, and not necessarily the truth of women’s experience. In what happened at the Foundling Hospital we may, at last, be able to hear the real voices of…”fallen women”.

She asks ‘how can we distinguish between what went on in real life and what is portrayed in fiction, poetry and art?’

The way ‘Fallen Women’ was organised, with little interplay between artwork and documents, seems to support Reynolds’s reductive view. More could have been done within the exhibit to show how this history/art, reality/mythology binary breaks down.

For one, artistic and literary depictions of fallen women shape the historical documents. The petitioning mothers are responding to cultural narratives by positioning themselves as sexually innocent and morally salvageable victims who, if not helped, would suffer the seemingly inevitable fate of the fallen woman: the workhouse, prostitution, suicide.

The Outcast by Richard Redgrave, RA. 1851. Oil on canvas, 31 x 41 inches. Royal Academy of the Arts, London. (Wikimedia Commons)

Another way to complicate this binary would have been to more deeply examine ‘stories and pictures’ that challenge stereotypical depictions of fallen women. Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast (1851), for example, an early treatment of the subject, is included in the exhibit but barely analysed. The painting depicts a young mother being cast out by her father into the cold. By showing the rest of her family pleading for her, is Redgrave suggesting that there is still time to intervene?

The exhibition could also have acknowledged that artwork has the power to inspire questions that can then drive historical research. In The Outcast, the unmarried mother’s sister kneels to implore their father, suggesting both female sympathy and male disapproval. An 1856 engraving by Rebecca Solomon, A Friend in Need, shows a middle-class woman stopping a man from harassing an unmarried mother. Do historical documents show a similar gendered pattern of response to fallen women, a tendency for female onlookers to be more sympathetic to unmarried mothers? Or did some women feel the need to condemn pregnancy out of wedlock so that they would not be associated with such a supposed vice?

Lastly, the exhibit could have engaged with literary sources both to explore this question and to provide more examples of cultural narratives that challenge received ideas. For example, George Moore’s 1894 novel Esther Waters differs greatly from most nineteenth -century literary depictions of unmarried women, including Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth (1853), and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), all mentioned in the exhibition booklet. Unlike its predecessors, Esther Waters does not imply that death as inevitable for a fallen woman its main character lives a life full of tribulations but ultimately succeeds as a mother. Esther, a kitchen-maid, is seduced and abandoned by a fellow servant. Suggesting the same pattern of female sympathy and male condemnation that marks the artworks mentioned above, Esther’s pregnant mother sympathises, while her abusive stepfather exclaims, ‘the goody-goody sort are the worst…We wants no bastards ‘ere…. And a nice example, too, for the other children!’

Although Esther is forced to pay other women to care for her son while she works as a wet-nurse and servant, the two are ultimately reunited (like some actual mothers and children from the Foundling Hospital). Esther’s hard work and devotion make her a mother her son can be proud of. Displaying an edition of Esther Waters next to The Outcast and A Friend in Need and digging deeper into the stories they tell could have reminded museum-goers that art and literature do not only express myths, but also challenge them.

Instead of casting historical documents as ‘truth’ and creative works as ‘myth,’ we should interpret them alongside each other as entwined expressions of human experience.

Fran Bigman is a visiting researcher at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan. She was most recently a Wellcome Trust Fellow in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds and has also taught literature and film at Brunel University in London and the University of Cambridge. In 2014, Fran received her PhD from the University of Cambridge for a thesis entitled ‘”Nature is a Wily Dame”: Abortion in British Literature and Film, 1907-1967,’ a topic she has discussed on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and written about for the TLS.

The Foundling Museum, Attractions in Holborn

This brilliant little museum tells an incredible and very moving story but do remember to pack your hankies!

The entrance to the Foundling Museum

Standing on a patch of land near the Brunswick Centre in Bloomsbury is the Foundling Museum. The building is a stone’s throw away from Coram’s Field, a large, welcoming space with a variety of play areas for children including a playground, a duck pond, a sand pit and a pet’s corner. The venue is unique in that it only allows adults to enter if they are accompanied by children.

The name of the park is a nod to Thomas Coram, a wealthy 18 th century ex-ship’s captain and philanthropist from Dorset. A Statue of Coram also stands outside the Museum.

As a frequent commuter to London, Coram was struck by the sad plight of infants on the streets of the city. Indeed, the problem of abandoned children was so severe in London in the 18 th century that it was not uncommon to find a baby left on a doorstep or concealed under a bush. Sadly many of these children would have died before being anyone found them.

The situation was so bad that a number of politicians, writers and academics began to call for immediate action on the issue. At the same time, Thomas Coram began to campaign for the establishment of an institution to care for these unfortunate babes.

Finally, in 1739, Coram managed to obtain a royal charter from King George II authorising the setting up of what soon became known as the Foundling Hospital. The term Foundling was commonly used during the period to describe an abandoned child and ‘hospital’ here refers to hospitality rather than medicine.

The guardians of the new institution first met at Somerset house on the 20th November 1739 and the first stone was laid at the site in September 1742. The hospital immediately attracted great interest and several wealthy benefactors including Gregor Handel, William Hogarth and Charles Dickens pledged their support.

Dickens, who lived nearby on Doughty Street for a time, took over the rental of a pew in the Hospital Chapel. Renting out pews gave the institution a vital source of revenue and the author, who had his own experiences of childhood poverty, was only to happy to help. The hospital and its inhabitants made such an impression on Dickens, that he named one of the characters in his new novel, Oliver Twist, John Brownlow after the man who collected the pew rents Brownlow.

The author, a staunch advocate for social reform, wrote extensively about the plight of the poor in London and based several books on the subject. It is probably no coincidence that he wrote Olivier Twist while living in the area. Twist, himself a foundling, is forced to fend for himself on the streets of London after being abandoned by his parents. The book documents the young man’s adventures as he falls in with the unscrupulous Fagin and his band of ne’er do wells.

Later, in Little Dorrit, he would create the character of Tattycoram, who had grown up in the Foundling Hospital.

The Foundling Museum is full of heart-breaking details of the children who came through its doors. One particularly moving part of the exhibition displays the ‘Foundling tokens’ – random objects that were rather hopefully attached to each child by their desperate parents in the hope that they would one day be able to reclaim them. Unfortunately, few parents ever returned.

The Foundling Museum, London: Poignant History of Those Working to Overcome Eighteenth Century Social Injustice

Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.

And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’

In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.

And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.

For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.

It took the wealthy and powerful to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741 it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital. A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.

When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….

Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.

Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved. Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.

This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.

The Foundling Museum - History


What an excellent post, Elizabeth, thank you. I have read a lot about Coram and his vision but I have not yet visited the museum. By the standards of the time it was revolutionary.

Reading this I was struck by how difficult it must have been to find that many wet nurses for the children, especially since they lived with their foster parents until they were five. It must have been a shock for them to be taken from their homes in the country and returned to London at that age.

The whole organisation was impressive, especially given that almost all of the children would probably have died otherwise.

Incidentally, how is it known that Mary Lamas was black, when the billet book doesn't record that. Is her later life known?

Fantastic post, Elizabeth, very interesting! Even if the children became institutionalised, at least they had much better lives than those poor ones still living on the streets. It's nice that someone cared!

Thank you Melinda/Sarah for your comment. I agree that the way the Foundling Hospital was run was revolutionary in many ways. The death rate amongst the babies was still high - over 40% - but a lot of that was due to the babies being in a very poor condition when they arrived and some of them had been doped with opium to keep them quiet.

Thank you too, Helena, for your thoughtful comments. Re: finding wet nurses, I don't think that would have been too much of a problem. With so many babies dying, there would have been a lot of lactating mothers around who would have been glad of the money.

Re: Mary Lamas, The Foundling Hospital kept meticulous records for all the children and Mary's colour is mentioned later. 18th century cartoons of London life - e.g. by Cruickshank or Rowlandson, show that Black people were not uncommon in London which was one of the largest cities in the world and a major port.

I agree with you, Christina. Thomas Coram was a remarkable man - though not always very tactful! Still, his dogged persistence paid off. After many years of getting nowhere with the male nobility, he had the bright idea of approaching the Duchess of Somerset. Once she was aboard, things got a lot easier and supporting the Foundling Hospital became the fashionable thing to do.

This is a fantastic post. Thank you so much. The Foundling Hospital is one of those things that has always been in the background, and it is wonderful to find such a wealth of detail about it.

Thank you, Lillian, for your kind comment. I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed writing about it. The Foundling Museum is open Tues - Sat 10.00 - 1700, and Sunday 11.00 - 17.00. It is well worth a visit - and they have a very nice café, too!

From lotteries to “General Reception”

Founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, the hospital began accepting infants under a “first come, first served” basis in 1741. Already overwhelmed with children by the end of its first year, it then switched to a lottery system in which parents were required to choose a ball from a bag. A white ball meant the child could be admitted pending a successful medical exam, black meant he or she would be refused a space, and red meant admission only if another child failed the medical assessment.

Carol Harris, the social historian of Coram, the children’s charity that began as the Foundling Hospital, notes that it was common for Londoners to show up at these lotteries. “It was seen as a form of entertainment in Georgian times,” she says. “The governors also fundraised from another public event, the ‘ladies’ breakfasts,’ when you could go and view the children eating.”

The lottery policy would continue until 1756 when the British government offered the hospital financial support with the caveat that the facility agree to take in every child under a certain age. The new scheme, known as “General Reception,” resulted in an enormous increase of admissions and continued until 1760 when the government rescinded its backing and the hospital switched to a petition/lottery system.

Until 1760, when the hospital started issuing receipts for children left in its care, no written records of any sort were kept regarding the mothers and fathers who entrusted their children to the hospital. As so many of the parents were illiterate, they would have been unable to leave a note or written statement as an identifier. Babies were identified only by a number recorded on a “billet,” a written form on which was also noted the child’s age, sex, clothing, and identifying marks.

The billet, along with whatever tokens were left, was then put in a packet, sealed with wax, and stored until a parent returned to make a claim. With no other method by which to identify and match families, the tokens became, for all intents and purposes, the only tether between parent and child.

Watch the video: The Foundling Museum - Ensuring everyones safety


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