Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Foundling Hospital

Establishing a large metropolitan orphanage seems to have marked a city and its society's arrival at their own Renaissance. They came to symbolize a time of wealth and an new found interest in the welfare of its people. During the Italian Renaissance foundling hospitals (remember, hospital-hospitality) sprung up, one even had a large wheel that you could place your baby on and rotate into the building so as not to show your shamed face when your dropped your child off. Amsterdam's beautiful History Museum is housed in the former old Civil Orphanage, established during the Dutch Golden Age. The English were very stuffy about the topic of illegitimate children. They saw orphanages in the same way many people now see giving condoms to teenagers: if we provide a place for whores to put their unwanted children it's condoning bad behavior. It wasn't until the Enlightenment that there was a call to finally do something about the orphan problem.

If a family or individual couldn't afford to take care of their child, it tended to end up in a workhouse; think: Oliver Twist. Only 10% of the children sent here would survive. Those that were too young to work would be on the streets. Dead babies in the street were a common, early-morning sight. This was a sight that Captain Thomas Coram couldn't bear to see. For years he petitioned the king for a foundling hospital with no success. Luckily, King George II ascended to the throne in 1727 and his wife, Queen Caroline had the same concerns as Coram about the children. Coram's petition for a hospital that would turn forgotten children into useful citizens seemed like a good idea to this king and he approved it. The nobility and the wealthy also thought it sounded good and many became subscribers, that is, donated their money to build the hospital.

Those who couldn't spare money were able to help in other ways. The idea of the Foundling Hospital appealed to William Hogarth, who often critiqued society in his artwork. He became one of the hospital's founding Governors and would go on to foster some of the children with his wife since they had none of their own. Hogarth brought artwork to the hospital, donated by himself and other artists such as Gainsborough and Reynolds, and even designed the uniforms and the Coat of Arms. Another artistic supporter was George Frideric Handel. The musician was in the height of his career and used his popularity to his advantage by holding charitable performances in order to raise money for the hospital.

The Foundling Hospital wouldn't take all babies at first, but by 1756 a basket was hung outside its door to symbolize the law passed in the House of Commons deeming that the hospital would turn away any child under twelve months old. Many times, the babies would be dropped off with some sort of token by their mother, perhaps symbols of sacrifice or remembrance. A key, a more pricey and meaningful token of ownership, were often left to symbolize that the mother meant to reclaim the child if fortune ever was to smile on her. Babies' lives began at the hospital with wet nurses, who lived outside the actual hospital. One of Hogarth's duties was to supervise the wet nurses. When old enough, children were tended to inside the hospital, girls and boys on opposite wings as was traditional in orphanages. Here the children were tended to when they were ill, given food and amenities, and an education. There was an apprenticing program, so that when the children became teenagers they became apprentices and began their journey into the outside world.

Today the hospital doesn't exist. The 20th century saw the end of orphanages in England and the demolishing of the actual building which was once described as being, "the most imposing single monument erected by eighteenth century benevolence." Traces of this symbol of humanity can still be seen on the former site. A playground sits on seven acres of the site, which is commonly used by children from the modern hospital nearby, Great Ormond Street Hospital. The Foundling Museum stands to tell the Foundling Hospital's story and houses the art collection William Hogarth put together to bring the joy of art into forgotten children's everyday lives.


  1. What a wonderful post, Heather. Do you know where orphans go now in England if orphanages are banned? Did I misread that part?

  2. Great post. I love Hogarth's portrait of Captain Coram and have always found the story of the Foundling Hospital interesting. Thanks!

  3. Glad you enjoyed!

    @Paul, England's system is like the US's now, with foster parenting. The old orphanages didn't have an emphasis on adoption; they just didn't expect anyone would want to adopt the orphans, it was merely an alternative to the workhouses.

    There's a great picture
    of the boys being led out of the hospital for the last time in 1929. The 20's was such a destructive time for great Georgian buildings in London. Such a loss!

  4. Another great post! Reminded me of singing the Foundling Hospital Anthem in choir - quite a fun song to sing, and even better followed up with Messiah (which was also performed at Handel's Foundling Hospital benefit concert). Charitable giving + music = awesomeness!

  5. I love the old Foundling Hospital! It's now a museum and is situated behind Coram's fields (where the sign is). The main exhibit is fascinating - it tells how mothers bringing babies received different coloured balls: white if your child was accepted, red if under consideration and black if rejected. The statistics were awful!

    Next to the museum is the Coram group which consists of an adoption facility; something for children in homes; a SureStart centre for mothers of under fives; and Kids - a charity for families with disabled children - who my mum now works for and who have helped us lots.

    Thanks Captain Coram!