History of the Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital, which continues today as children's charity Coram, was the first purpose built home for children whose mothers were unable to care for their babies themselves because of poverty or social exclusion. It was established in Bloomsbury, London, by Royal Charter in 1739 after a 17-year campaign by shipbuilder and philanthropist, Thomas Coram. He received support for his mission from some of the leading figures of the time including the artist, William Hogarth, and the composer George Frederic Handel.

Desperate mothers took their children to the Foundling Hospital in the hope that the Hospital's governors would agree to admit them. In the early years children were taken in on a 'first come, first served' basis. This often resulted in chaos, so a ballot system was introduced, through which mothers had to draw a coloured ball from a bag; white meant that the child would be admitted if healthy, red meant that they would be put on a waiting list and black meant that they were turned away.

In 1756 the Hospital governors approached Parliament for much needed funds, and the government agreed to provide these on the condition that the Hospital accepted all children that were presented to it. The mortality rate of the children rose alarmingly as a result and this practice, along with the funds, was stopped in 1760.

The Hospital's mission was two fold: to provide a home for children and to enable their mothers to re-establish themselves fully in society. New rules for admission were introduced in the nineteenth century which stated that a child had to be illegitimate and under one year old to be accepted. They also had to be a first born child, and the mother had to be able to prove that she was of good character. To protect the anonymity of birth mothers all the children had their names changed on admission to the Hospital. This practise continued until 1948 and all the people interviewed through the Foundling Voices project had their names changed as babies.

Children admitted to the Hospital lived with foster families for the first five years of their lives. This practice was set up in the eighteenth century so babies could be wet-nursed, but again, it continued into the twentieth century. At the age of five children left their foster parents' care and came to live in the institution, which increasingly became known as the Foundling Hospital School. A basic education in reading, writing, arithmetic and scripture was provided, and this gradually broadened to include grammar, geography and drawing. Girls and boys were strictly segregated at all times for both lessons and day to day life. Music played an important role in the children's lives. The school ran a choir and in 1847 a boys' band was created, which provided a stream of recruits to military bands over the next century.

On leaving school the majority of boys joined the army and girls generally went into domestic service. The Hospital continued to act as guardians until the young people were 21 years old and follow up support and care was provided. Some of the girls perceived to be more academic were given the chance to continue their studies at Camden Girls School.

By 1926 the Hospital governors decided that London had become too dirty and polluted a place to bring up children, and the school moved temporarily to a site in Redhill, Surrey, before moving to a brand new, purpose built building in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1935. The new school included a chapel, concert hall, dining room, swimming pool and gymnasium. The majority of the Georgian buildings in Bloomsbury were pulled down.

The war years from 1939 to 1945 were a bleak period for the school as teachers were called up for military service, and the annual six-week summer camp, which had provided a break from the routine of school life and an element of freedom, was discontinued. Children lived in the school for 52 weeks of the year with no opportunity to break the routine or escape the bullying of older boys and girls. After the war, however, many changes were brought in, and life became much happier. Young, qualified teachers were appointed and others returned from the war, the strict segregation between the sexes was gradually relaxed, and the school began to put children back in touch with birth mothers in cases where the mother had kept in regular contact. Opportunities on leaving school were also expanded, with many girls learning typing and shorthand and going into office work and boys going into a wider range of occupations.

In 1954 the Foundling Hospital School at Berkhamsted was closed. The buildings were sold to Hertfordshire County Council, who established a local school on the site. Remaining Foundling pupils returned to live with their foster families or were found new homes. The Hospital officially changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and continues today as the children's charity, Coram, supporting some of the country's most vulnerable children and families.