Tuesday 22 February 2011

London: The Foundling Hospital

As my train approached London last week, I had that feeling in my stomach that I always get when arriving in that city:  part excitement, part a feeling of returning to somewhere familiar (from having been there before, but also can the land of your ancestors resonate in your blood?), and part a gearing myself up for a noisy, chaotic, bustling place where past and present seem to live side by side in a crazy temporal patchwork.
My first stop was The Foundling Museum. Photography was not allowed inside, and I would have taken a picture of the building, but there was a large tour bus parked out front pretty much obscuring it.

Though these are the original grounds of the Hospital, the building itself is not the original grand Hospital building.  As the city of London grew and grew, what had been an idyllic site on the edge of the city, had now become central and noisy and polluted.  In 1926, the children were relocated to facilities outside of London.

The original building was torn down, though parts were dismantled, stored, and have been reinstalled in the current Museum building at 40 Brunswick Square.  They have preserved the beautiful oak staircase, as well as a couple of rooms - the most magnificent being the Court Room.  This was where the Board of Governors would conduct meetings, and where functions for important guests would be held.  This room (with exception of the floor) is original eighteenth century, and was painstakingly reassembled in 1937.  The ceiling is a dizzying marvel of plaster work.

The Hospital was the brainchild of Thomas Coram, whose portrait, painted by William Hogarth, and which hangs in the Picture Gallery in the Museum,  is on the cover of the Museum's catalogue below. 

This man, of humble origins, made his fortune in shipbuilding after apprenticing at the age of 16 to a shipwright.   He spent many years in North America, and eventually returned to England.  In 1722, in a state of semi-retirement, this man of endless energy and temper and idealism, sickened by the conditions that the poor - and particularly children (babies were often literally left at the side of the road to die) - were living in in London at the time, decided to found an orphanage.

Coram had a history of philanthropy.  Back in North America, he had tried to set up a colony for "destitute ex-soldiers" as well as campaigning for "inheritance rights for daughters of colonists and land rights for Mohicans."  So, he would have been well aware of the difficulty in getting something as ambitious as a Foundling Hospital off the ground, though perhaps he didn't realize that it would take a full 17 years for it to grow from the germ of an idea, to a chartered reality.

Two of the other main contributors to making this Hospital a thriving success were the artist and social commentator William Hogarth, and the composer George Frideric Handel.  They used their influence and talents to make the Foundling Hospital a very fashionable address for parties amongst high society, and in making it a venue for British painters to exhibit their work.

It's interesting to think of the parties with their music, and fancy gowns, and chatter, not far from the masses and masses of orphaned children, living a very different kind of existence, consisting of small portions of simple food, basic clothing, a regimented daily routine, and hours learning skills which would hopefully allow them to find work as apprentices once they were released into the world.  But, the fact that they had any existence at all was, in most cases, a direct result of the Hospital, and its wealthy sponsors.  
How this exhibition came about is interesting.  It started when the curator of the exhibition, John Styles, was researching his book "The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England" (2007).  It is, of course, impossible to find surviving samples of complete outfits of the poor from that time, as they would be worn to threads, and often converted to other uses.  Mr. Styles wondered whether he could get any closer by looking at samples of the textiles used to make the clothing of the poor and was directed to the massive collection of snippets of cloth in the keeping of the Foundling Museum.  It is, as he says in the catalogue, "Britain's largest collection of everyday textiles" with some 5000 swaths. 

Walking through the exhibition, one is very much aware - and the curator makes a huge point of this - that each little swath of fabric represents a child.  These swaths were added to the registration document of each child from a period between 1741 - 1760.   During this time, the process of putting a child up for adoption was an anonymous one.  However, many children were given these tokens by their mothers perhaps as a way to identify and reunite them once again (though this rarely happened).  Other times, the bits of fabric would be cut from the child's garments by the staff member who processed their admittance.  

Walking through the items on display was quite devastating.  I'm not one to cry in public, but I was relieved to have had the foresight to have brought a packet of tissues with me.

As photos weren't permitted, I purchased a collection of postcards prepared for the exhibition.

 Four ribbons.  Foundling 170, a girl, 1743.

A baby's sleeve (back when sleeves weren't attached to the body of a shirt).  Foundling 235, a boy, 1746.

Printed fabric.  Foundling 11868, a girl, 1759.

Flannel embroidered with a flower (before pink and flowers were associated with girls).  Foundling 12843, a boy, 1759.

Linen or cotton embroidered with flowers.  Foundling 14084, a boy, 1759.

One can only imagine what the experience was like for all involved.

I found the exhibition to have been very well put together; respectful of everyone involved: the babies, the mothers, the staff of the Foundling Hospital.  It was not sentimental, nor was it in any way callous.  It dealt with a very real, very difficult topic with respect.  It is a fascinating and unique piece of social history.

The exhibition continues only until March 6, but the Museum itself is most definitely worth a visit on its own. 

Coram's name is still attached to a London based children's charity running today.  On the fence surrounding Coram's Fields just south of the Museum is this sign.  I love the condition of entry. 

I was going to write more about my trip to London, but I think I'll leave that for another day.


  1. Fascinating. And, yes, I do believe that the land of one's ancestors resonates in one's blood!

  2. I am not a city gal Lynn ... I don't like crowds or soot or noise or ... so thanks for going where it is unlikely I will go. And I am sure that you picked up vibes--hence the sadness beyond the notion of what had gone on before--from all those lonely children who'd lost their mothers, and vice versa.

    Still the idea of philantrophy is one that exists today ... where the acquisition of goods and demand are so unequal. I imagine that this trip will be of influence (in some way) on your road ahead as an artist. It is now woven into your consciousness/being ... one cannot leave these things unaffected.

    Thank you for sharing ... your words do your trip justice.

  3. Lynn, thank you so much for writing about the exhibition. I've not been able to get to London to see it. Even just reading the descriptions underneath the postcards is incredibly moving.

    Looking forward to reading more about your trip.

  4. Thanks for confirming that, Valerianna! I sometimes wonder whether it's just a Romantic notion I have, or a real connection. But then what's the difference? An emotional response of any type is exactly proof of that "resonating in the blood".

    In these days when so many of us are wanderers, separate from our ancestral home (or homes), there is still a connection that so many feel when they see the landscape, or read the stories of, or hear music from these ancestral lands. It's an exciting, deep remembrance.

    I can completely understand someone not being a city gal, Jan. Cities - especially ones as big as this one - can be incredibly overwhelming. I could never live in London, as much as I'm infatuated with it. You're very right about this trip influencing both my writing and my art. It's too early to tell how, exactly, but already I feel as though I'm looking at certain things differently.

    I'm glad you've enjoyed reading about the exhibition, Claire. It was moving beyond words. Some of the items from it are part of the permanent display at the museum, so if you get a chance to see the museum some other time, they'd be available for viewing.

  5. lynn, thank you for posting this. may i say up front i am absolutely green with envy you got to the exhibit! but you do us readers a service by talking so sensitively about it. i felt profound sadness when i first read about the exhibit in selvedge. i think it is a profound exhibition, in every sense. the online exhibition was also well presented. thank you for writing about it..

  6. It sounds w0nderful, Lynn - now, if only I can make the time to go!

  7. Thank you for your kind words about the post, Velma. I was very lucky to have been able to go to the exhibit. It was quite unlike anything I've experienced: amazing for so many different reasons. A few of the pieces from the exhibit are on permanent display at the Museum, so if you do get to London at some point, the Museum itself is very well worth a visit. (That Ocean can sometimes seem so small, and at other times all too large.)

    It really was wonderful, Katherine. Do try to get to it if you can!

  8. Such a wonderful essay. I just discovered your lovely blog through a link in comments. Thank you for sharing your experience. I would have loved to have seen this exhibition. The photographs of the swaths along with a few of the stories moved me deeply and I would like to have been in their presence.

  9. Thank you for visiting my blog, Aria!

    It was an amazing experience to see that exhibition. There is a permanent collection at the museum, which includes some of the items on display at the exhibition, if it's possible for you to get to London at some point. Also, the catalogue can be ordered over the Internet from their website, I believe.

    The exhibition was an amazing thing which seems to have touched so many people - from many different places. I'm grateful that they put it together, and that I was able to see it.

  10. Thanks for the tip. I just ordered the catalog through the museum's website. A lovely person called Hazel Baily responded and set it up for me right away. I will definitely visit the collection if I am ever in London again. Hopefully, I will be in London again one of these days.

  11. You're very welcome, Aria. It's a nice catalogue. I, too, found the staff at the Museum very helpful and friendly. I'd love to go back some day, as well.

  12. This will be on my list of places to go next time I'm in London! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Thanks for your visit, Newburgh Restoration. The Foundling Museum is truly an amazing place.

  14. great story, thanks for sharing.

  15. Great post! In the past 2 days, is the first I have heard of this. So many bits of fabric, hopefully creating a bond or tie between mother and child. I like the entrance to the play ground.

  16. You're very welcome, "dear pony", glad you enjoyed the post.

    Thanks, Deb. Such a moving exhibit. I'm glad that there's been so much interest in it.

  17. Oh my goodness... I am just heartbroken reading this... I came over here from Cartolina, having braced myself for the story and understanding what the swatches were, but more interested really in the fabrics because I am a fabricaholic. I am so glad I came to read the entire story! I will be looking up more of this and only wish I could have seen the exhibit myself. I am truly moved that you wrote such an amazing description both of the history and your experience. Thank you!

  18. You're very welcome, Andrea.

    The history of the hospital is quite astounding. I stumbled upon it when doing research into early eighteenth century clothing worn by the poor for a novel I'm working on. The more I read about the exhibit, the more I wanted to try to get to it - and luckily circumstances allowed for that just then. There is an exhibition catalogue available from the museum's website which is well worth a look.

    Thanks for stopping by and reading about the exhibit and the hospital.

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  20. Thank you for posting this blog. I am a Coram who lives in Canada. It is my dream to visit London and visit the museum myself one day. I appreciate the sensitivity and insight that you have given. It fuels my desire to go to London.
    I will be looking into the catalogue that you wrote about

  21. Thank you for your comment, Audrey.
    I do hope that you get to London to see the museum.
    The catalogue is wonderful, as is the booklet they put together about the Museum called "The Foundling Museum." It gives the history of Thomas Coram and the Hospital. A wonderful and inspiring man to have in your family tree!