London’s Forgotten Children : Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital by Gillian Pugh

In August 2004 we reviewed Dame Gillian Wagner’s excellent biography of Thomas Coram, Gent. This book also focuses on Thomas Coram in the early chapters but then goes on to trace the history of the Foundling Hospital which he established and its evolution into the Coram Family today. It is a fascinating story.We are appalled by today’s child care scandals, but they bear no comparison with the horrors of the mid-eighteenth century, when babies were abandoned on rubbish heaps. Thomas Coram had had a hard start in life himself, but he developed a mixed career of trading, ship-building and other work concerning the sea, which led people to refer to him as Captain Coram. In mid-life, he became concerned for the welfare of children not only on compassionate grounds, but also because the growing British Empire needed people to colonise new lands, to sail its ships and to work in the growing cities such as London, and children who died young were a wasted resource.

He battled for seventeen years to persuade those in power to back his plan for a hospital for foundlings, eventually obtaining widespread support for a Royal Charter, having first won over a number of influential ladies, who in turn persuaded their noble husbands to support the scheme

The Foundling Hospital opened in 1741, and was never short of applicants. The children were placed with wet nurses (foster parents) outside London until they were five, when they were transferred to the Hospital itself – quite a wrench. Then they received institutional care until they could be apprenticed or placed in work. Even if we consider the care offered to be rigid and regimented from today’s viewpoint, by comparison with the standards of the day, the care they received was very good. This review cannot cover the detail about life in the Hospital or the predicaments of the mothers who approached the Hospital to receive their babies, recounted graphically in the book.

Much of the book focuses on Thomas Coram’s struggle to get the Hospital established. The remainder falls into three unequal sections reflecting the subsequent history of the Hospital.

First, for the next hundred years or more, the Hospital continued much as it had always done from the start, providing institutional care for London children. It had ups and downs, but the fact that it did not change was possibly because it was based on a sound formula which worked well.

Eventually, it was decided to move, and the original Hospital was abandoned in 1926. After a period in temporary accommodation, a new Hospital was built in the countryside at Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire, with better facilities. This second phase did not last long, as institutional residential care became unpopular in the wake of John Bowlby’s teaching, and the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, as it became known in 1953, decided that its role was to be at the cutting edge of childcare. In 1955 it took the bold decision to close the Hospital and do other things.

The third phase covers recent decades, in which Coram Family, as it is now called, has set up many innovative projects, and closed some of them down, sometimes for lack of funding and sometimes because other agencies had now adopted the ideas and the services had become mainstream. The chapter covering this phase comes over as rather bitty, reflecting the numerous ventures to meet newly identified unmet needs.

Taking the book as a whole, the Foundling Hospital and its successors offer an excellent case study of the development of services for children and young people in the United Kingdom. Gillian Pugh points to the links with legislation and changes in practice. Indeed, if you want to read the book in miniature, turn to the last chapter, where the Hospital’s history and its interplay with national developments is summarised.

The book has some excellent illustrations, and it has been written for a general readership and not just for scholars. It does have notes, and it is well researched -(there are eight tonnes of archives) – but it is also fluently written and easy to read. (I got through it in one morning while waiting for treatment in hospital.)

Perhaps the key message from the book is that providing and developing services for children and young people does not just happen. It is the result of years of hard work by people such as Thomas Coram and his supporters, who included Handel and Hogarth. It is shaped by researchers such as John Bowlby. If it is not to become outdated, it has to be adapted to new needs and circumstances by innovators who take risks in trying out new approaches.

It is one of the values of history books that they not only tell us about what happened in the past, what the problems were and the solutions that were found, but they offer us the broad long-term view, and give us the message that the next stage is down to us. How are we going to meet the needs of the next generation of children and ensure that they are not forgotten?

London’s Forgotten Children : Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital
Gillian Pugh
Tempus Publishing (2007)
ISBN 978 07524 4244 0

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