In a society were children are called ‘bastards’, because their parents are unwed, or they were the outcome to an affair, I ask myself where would they have gone if both their parents refused to take care of them (which sadly was a common situation).These days alternative homes are available for abandoned child, from care homes to adoption and fostering. It hasn’t always been this way in Britain, the 18th century was the beginning of many children’s charities, including some which still live on today. One legacy which still lives on today is the Coram foundation, set up by Captain Thomas Coram after he retired in 1719*.
Children would have been judged depending on who their parents were, neglected children was a huge social issue. Although there may be relatives to bring up an abandoned or orphaned child, the child may not tick the right boxes to be accepted by a family, for instance illegitimate children, such as a child born from unwed parents, prostitutes and even affairs (particularly those related to slave masters), were seen as a a burden to the family, with some being left on the streets, even as babies.
After a successful, what we call, career in the Americas, Thomas Coram returned to England with he’s wife. He frequently strolled the streets of London, and was appalled by the sights of abandoned and dying babies and children on the streets of London. He, with the help of he’s wife, decided to take action, perhaps because him and he’s wife were childless, they felt this next venture was a good cause. It took him roughly 17* years to set up the charity, although he faced difficulties and barriers, he ensured he gathered support from public figures for a foundling hospital (a hospital would have been an institution which offers hospitality of some sort, rather than how we use it today).
[Foundling Hospital Founder, Thomas Coram- Taken from Google Images]
The first children were admitted to the Foundling Hospital on 25th March 1741*, into a temporary house located in Hatton Garden. Children who entered were baptised and given a new name, the first 2 children were named after the founders ( Thomas Coram and Eunice Coram).Up until the 18th century, these children were given a token by their birth parents as a reference for if they wanted to claim their child back in later life. The place was then changed from a fondling hospital to a hospital for illegitimate children in 1760, mothers had to register their children to attend (sadly the application was long and many children could not be accepted), the mothers either had to be unwed, but could not be widows. The aim was to ensure the mother also went back to a decent life as the institution took care of their children, whereby they looked after them up until they were apprenticed for work, many being trained in domestic and military services. The charity also became the centre of many social activities, it also contributed to changing societies negative thoughts on poverty, aiming to break the poverty cycle, whereby you are what you are born into.
[An example of what a mother would leave behind for their child. This looks like a button. Mothers would leave something small such as a button or coin. Later on they were given receipts instead- Picture taken from http://www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk]
I would be interested in finding out a few stories of these children. Corams legacy still lives on through the Foundling Museum in Russell Square and the charity has adapted to helping the needs of as many children as they can reach and tackling their challenges.
*Dates taken from multiple sources, may not be accurate