Inside The Foundling Museum, in London’s Bloomsbury, hangs Hogarth’s splendid portrait of a generous-hearted man who should be better known.
Thomas Coram, a sea captain, on his retirement to London in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, was horrified that babies were abandoned to die on the dung heaps of the city’s streets. The Catholic Continent had convents which accepted foundlings, but there were none of those in Protestant England. A man of action, Coram devoted his retirement to raising enough capital for a refuge for infants whose mothers were unable, through want or the social disgrace associated with unmarried motherhood, to care for them. It took this tenacious man an amazing seventeen years to make his dream a reality but, finally, in 1741 London’s Foundling Hospital opened its doors.
Today, The Foundling Museum has on display the well-thumbed notebook in which he painstakingly recorded the sums – large and small – that he persuaded citizens of London to part with. The Museum also holds poignant examples of the coins or scraps of ribbon or lace left as tokens by desperate mothers in the hope they might, one day, be able to reclaim their precious child. It was one of these, a pink square of fabric embroidered with my own initials, that moved me to write my novel, The Servant. The embroidery is exquisite, the fabric looks like silk, and the woman who created it was clearly literate. What was her story? We will never know, but it must have been a sad one.
I like to think it was Coram’s wife – like myself childless – who suggested to him that he stop his fruitless attempts to raise enough money from the city fathers and powerful male aristocracy and instead approach their wives. For it was the signatures of the Duchess of Somerset and other high society women on The Ladies Petition presented to George III in 1735 that finally made Coram’s dream a reality. I am also tempted to wonder whether the consciences of those ladies had been pricked by awareness of sins committed by their own sons and husbands.
When the Museum is properly open again, next year, I hope that those who live within reach of London will make a visit. The stories of so many betrayed women are poignant, but an important part of our history.
In his final days, Thomas Coram is recorded as liking to sit in the garden of The Foundling Hospital, in his distinctive scarlet coat, handing out gingerbread men to the children. The Santa Claus of his age.
The Servant by Maggie Richell-Davies – £1.99 on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B087N8H9PB