Home Tourist – The Foundling Museum

I’ve recently acquired an Art Fund National Art Pass which affords free or discounted entrance to many of the UK’s art institutions.  More pertinently, along with it, came a listing of all the all the member institutions, some of which I’d never previously heard, or if I had, didn’t realise it was possible to visit.

My first visit courtesy of the Pass was to the Foundling Museum in Coram Fields.

Established by a sea captain, Thomas Coram, in the 18th century to look after orphaned or abandoned babies, the charity continues its activities supporting children into the present day.  It sounds like Coram spent a great deal of time and energy cultivating the fashionable ladies of the day to take advantage of the new trend in society for charity to fundraise for the creation of a Foundling Hospital, in an era when there were hundreds of children abandoned each year because of poverty or shame.  At the same time, the artist Hogarth became a significant benefactor, giving art works to the Foundation and encouraging his artist friends to do the same, thereby creating a significant art collection, with which to decorate the hospital.

Seeing these paintings as well as the rather baroque decoration of the restored Court Room, I did wonder how likely it was that any of the children ever actually saw all this munificent generosity.  It seemed more likely to have the purpose of creating grand surroundings for genteel people to be entertained while they were solicited for donations.  A modern benefactor might have wondered if more money might have been spent on the children…..

The social history of the manner in which over the centuries it has been considered appropriate to treat children is fascinating; the clothing and menus, and skills training considered suitable,  as well as the rigour of the rules and the copiousness and formality of the accompanying paperwork.

I spent most of my visit looking at the display of tokens left with the babies by their Mothers as a means of identification for when they might return to take the children back.  Most of them tiny: a nut, military buttons, coins marked or drilled through to make them unique and identifiable, tiny broaches and beaded necklaces.  The collection has clearly been the object of much sentimental interest over the intervening years, as the tokens have been periodically on public display ever since, in the Victorian era, they were separated from all their accompanying paper work, rendering it impossible ever since to reconnect the tokens with the identity of the children.  It is quite a poignant thought that the tokens were considered to be the property of the filing system rather than to be treasured by the children as a link to their absent mother.  The practice of renaming all the babies as soon as they were admitted reinforces the notion that all ties with the past were severed at that moment.

If a mother sought the return of her child, she had to first pay all the costs incurred by the Hospital for its upkeep during its residence, which must have been a powerful impediment to many reunions.  The rule must have been to create a disincentive for parents to simply park a child with the charity for a short time, but it does also probably mean that few children could be successfully reclaimed.  There were however also stories of women returning for their babies, only for the paperwork to have gone missing.

Time prevented me from visiting the Handel memorabilia also displayed in the Museum, but now I know where it is, I’m sure I will return.

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