Monday, 9 June 2014

Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital

When I booked to see Neil Gaiman and Tori Amos at the British Library, I saw that there was another event, involving Dave McKean performing some of his own music, and happily there were 2 performances, one on Friday evening, and one on Saturday evening, so I was able to book for the Saturday without having to book a day off work.

I got a train up to London, around midday on Saturday. The Dave McKean event wasn't until 6.30, so I had a few hours in London, and I decided to go to a museum I've not previously visited, The Foundling Museum, which is close to the British Library.

The museum is on the site of Thomas Coram's original Foundling Hospital - Coram was a sea captain, who became appalled at the sight of children abandoned and dying on the streets of London, and who campaigned to get a Royal Charter in order to set up a foundling hospital. He wasn't particularly well connected, and it took him 17 years to get what he needed, but he got his Royal Charter signed by George II in 1739, and founded a ' Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children

The hospital was so popular that they had to introduce an application process, and parents were encouraged to leave a token to allow them to identify their child if they were ever able to return to reclaim them. 

The museum has a lot of the tokens on view - some serve to illustrate how poor the parents were - there are little twists of ribbon, beads, even playing cards. There are also more distinctive tokens - a bone fish (probably a gambling token) and a medallion which was a season ticket for Vauxhall pleasure gardens.

The children were given new names when they were admitted, and (if not reclaimed by their parents) were apprenticed once they became old enough, with a view to them becoming productive members of society.

Coram may not have started with much in the way of influence or connections, but he managed to achieve both - William Hogarth became a Governor of the hospital, and designed its coat of arms, and the original uniforms, as well as donating art works. 

Handel supported it, conducting charity concerts, including performances of his 'Messiah' Oratorio there, to benefit the hospital, and remembering it in his will. 

As well as information and exhibits relating to the history of the hospital, the museum has a lot of art - the current displays include copies of Hogarth's Rake's Progress' etchings, together with modern interpretations and reflections of similar themes, by David Hockney, Yinka Shonibare, Jessie Brennan and Grayson Perry

It made for an interesting, thought-provoking, and occasionally heart-breaking afternoon. 

The Coram organisation still works with children and  their families, although they no longer run children's homes directly. And the museum is well worth visiting, if you have the opportunity.

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