Although the prints in this post are much earlier, the Foundling Hospital would have been well known – and in fact a fashionable place to visit – right through the 19th century. It was founded in 1742 by the man in the portrait below, Captain Thomas Coram, master mariner and shipwright, who was appalled by the plight of the homeless children he saw on the streets of London when he came there to live.
Coram worked hard for almost twenty years to alleviate the plight of orphaned children, or those abandoned by their parents “to die on a dunghill” before he secured sufficient support from ladies of “Nobility and Distinction” to provide a permanent home for them and a charter from George II in 1739.
After an unsatisfactory beginning in Hatton Garden a large plot – 56 acres – was bought in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, then open fields close to the road to Hampstead and Highgate villages. Work began on a grand hospital to the designs of Theodore Jacobsen and the first children – the boys – moved into the east wing in 1742. The west wing, for the girls, was ready by 1745.
The image above is a detail from “A View of the Foundling Hospital” published soon after the building was finished. Such magnificence might seem a waste of money that could have been better spent, but it was essential to attract the patronage of as many fashionable and wealthy people as possible and this fine and eminently respectable building became not only a place to visit but also one of worship in its chapel. Hogarth, and then other major artists, contributed paintings which were also an attraction to visitors who, once they were inside, could be solicited for donations.
Handel was another major benefactor. He donated an organ in 1750, gave concerts there, trained the choir and raised over £7,000 by performances of his Messiah.
The children were, at first, accepted as and when there was room on a first-come, first-taken basis but this proved unworkable because the numbers seeking admission were simply too great. Instead it became a lottery with mothers drawing a ball from a bag. White gave the child immediate admittance, providing they passed a medical exam, red put them on a waiting list and black was rejection. Amongst the most harrowing objects to see in all of London are in the collection of tokens mothers left with their child in the faint hope that one day they could come back to claim them. You can find out more about them at the Foundation’s website.
Once the children reached the age of fourteen they were apprenticed, joined the army or were found positions as domestic servants. Only tiny handful were ever reunited with their mothers.
In 1926 the hospital moved to Redhill and then to Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, where its buildings are now Ashlyns school. A smaller building was put up on part of the site and it retains one of the staircases and many of the furnishing and paintings from the original. Even part of the perimeter wall and gates can still be seen – have a look on StreetView at the junction of Guilford Street and Guilford Place, looking north, and you will recognize the centre front feature in the print above, although without its ironwork.