More about Thomas Coram

Thomas Coram was born, probably in 1668, in the reign of Charles II, and spent his early years in Lyme Regis, which had been established as a port by the 11th century.

Drawing of fur traders, 17th Century CanadaCoram’s earliest memories would have included seeing fishing boats which sailed from Lyme Regis to the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland, and the merchant ships which brought timber, molasses, furs and tobacco from the New World.

Lyme Regis’ harbour wall, known as the Cobb (because it was made of cobblestones) has become famous in recent years as the setting for John Fowles’ book The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and the subsequent film with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. Coram would have seen and may have helped with the rebuilding of the Cobb when it was damaged by bad weather – a contemporary account refers to this as a regular event involving the whole town. Fowles, who lived in Lyme Regis for many years, concluded from his own research that Coram’s father had been on the staff of the customs office.

pen and ink drawing of 17th-century sailorsCoram left the town probably aged about 11 years and never returned. His father sent him to sea in a merchant ship and for five years, Thomas endured a harsh life as one of the most junior sailors on board.

As the new market with the American colonies developed, the British parliament passed laws to protect British trade interests and secure employment for British mariners – usually at the expense of the colonists. In Britain, these protectionist policies spurred a huge demand for British ships and shipbuilders. Coram’s father recalled him from a life at sea and in 1684, sent him to be apprenticed as a shipwright. He was clearly very able; he worked in Liverpool in his first job after he had completed his training, and was made a freeman of the city in 1691. Two years working in London followed this and before he left for Boston — a decision that appears to have been his own.

Coram’s reputation was such that despite his youth, Thomas Hunt, a London merchant, employed him as his factor and instructed him to sail to Boston in charge of a group of other skilled men to set up a shipbuilding business. There is little detail about his time in Boston but he is referred to in legal documents as ‘Thomas Coram, Boston, shipwright’, or ‘Thomas Coram of Boston, sometimes residing in Taunton’.

Boston at the time of Thomas Coram’s arrival

Map of Massachusetts showing Boston and TauntonIt is possible that as Thomas Coram came to Boston, the famous Salem witch trials were under way – the last executions were in September 1692 and the last hearings in May 1693. We are not sure exactly when Coram arrived, but he was a Boston resident in 1693.

Coram got on especially well with Sir William Phips, a fellow shipwright and the first royally-appointed governor of Massachusetts. Phips had arrived in Boston to take up his post as governor in May 1691, when the city was in the grip of hysteria over witchcraft and the legal system could not cope with the numbers of people accused. Phips established courts to hear cases against those accused. He later disbanded the courts and pardoned most of those facing execution, but it was too little, too late. William Stoughton, the Chief Prosecutor at the trials, also ruled in several disputes between Coram and the people of Taunton, usually in Coram’s favour.

Boston families

Coram met Eunice Waite, the daughter of an established Boston family. Her grandparents, the Waites and the Hutchinsons, had all left Lincolnshire in England, in 1633. The Hutchinsons arrived wealthy. The Waites, by contrast, emigrated to Boston to escape the poverty of rural England. Gamaliel Waite probably worked for the Hutchinson family in Alton, Lincolnshire as he came to Boston indentured to Richard Hutchinson. Having paid off his debts, established himself as a freeman.  

Marriage to Eunice

Coram married Eunice in 1700. Eunice was a Congregationalist but there is no evidence of any friction over religion between Coram and the Waite family. Letters show that Eunice and Thomas Coram were happily married for 40 years, until her death after a long period of poor health. Even after they returned to England, she continued to attend a Congregationalist church – Coram admired her independent spirit. The couple always intended to return to America and corresponded regularly with the Waite family, especially with Eunice’s mother.

River deep

Thomas Coram chose the town of Taunton for his new business because of the topography of the river and the bank; the deep water meant that he could build large ships. He described it as ‘in the most commodious place on the river with so good a depth of water, that if need were, a fourth-rate frigate might be launched there.’ (A fourth rate frigate is a small warship of 46-60 guns, which was used later in the War of Independence). He regularly travelled the 45 miles between Boston and Taunton on horseback, much of it along the road known at the time as the King’s Highway; today it is called the Bay Road.

Religious differences

We are church captionTypically for the time, many of the Taunton townspeople had left England to establish a community in which all followed the same religious principles. Anyone who was not of the same religious sect was viewed with distrust. Coram was very outspoken, and his new neighbours did not welcome his fierce loyalty to the British Crown, nor his robust Anglicanism. Unlike the Anglicans, the Congregationalists did not celebrate festivals such as Easter or Christmas. Unaccompanied singing of plain hymns was the only music permitted - they disapproved of instrumental music, regarding the church organ as an invention of the Devil. They believed Satan to be a constant presence in their lives, appearing in disguise to tempt them and endanger their mortal souls. For his part, Coram hoped that the inhabitants one day ‘should be more civilised than they now are.’ 

Taunton vs Coram

Religious differences between Coram and his neighbours soon surfaced. These were played out in the courts; seemingly trivial issues quickly escalated; claims and counter-claims were made; violence was often threatened and sometimes used against Coram. He frequently had to go to the Boston courts to receive a fair hearing as local magistrates, out of fear of their neighbours and/or personal enmity toward Coram, invariably ruled against him.

Beware of Mr Burt!

Even when the local courts found in his favour, enforcement was another matter. One such case resulted in the court awarding Thomas Coram 59 acres of land belonging to Abel Burt. When Coram rode with the court official to see the land, Burt shot at them both. In 1702, Abel Burt attacked Coram again - Coram reflected that he would have been murdered had others not come to his aid.

Coram leaves Taunton

His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. Coram left Taunton knowing that any legal rulings from the Boston courts about unfulfilled contracts would not be enforced by the local Taunton officials; further the claims lodged against him by local people for debts might well result in him being imprisoned. In 1703 he described his treatment by the town as ‘barbarous’, adding,

I have reason to believe that they are some of the very worst of the creation, and to compleat and cloak their black action, have in their serpentine manner endeavoured to stigmatize my Reputation with the best of the country, and some of the Countrey Justices thereabouts have been so partial in their administrations.

Much against his combative nature, he and Eunice returned to Boston, to live with his mother-in law, and from there, the couple sailed for England. Despite his intentions – he did not sell his house in Taunton until 1742 - he never came back to America.

Coram’s house in Taunton

Visitors to Taunton today can still see Thomas Coram’s home, at 2130 Water Street. It is privately owned and occupied and has changed little apart from when it was built in 1799, apart from the addition of an Italianate porch in the 1870s. Around 1700, Coram went into partnership with another shipwright and English inhabitant of Taunton, John Hathaway. They built homes next door to each other, and from them could oversee their jointly-owned shipyard and wharf. John Hathaway’s house, built a year or two later, is number 2120. Today the site is owned by the Taunton Yacht Club which bought the area known today as Coram Shipyard and Coram Wharf in 1895.

Coram’s legacy in Taunton

Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard he established and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican/Episcopal church (the Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence as separate from, but allied to the Church of England). John Hathaway continued the business after Coram had left the town. Other yards were established along the bank of the deep water channel, so much so that in the early 1700s, the area became a distinct town, known as Dighton. Trading ships left Dighton, travelling across the globe, importing from, and exporting to Europe, South America, and the West Indies.

Coram left 59 acres of Taunton land – most of it from the court settlement against Mr Burt to help found a Church of England in Taunton. In Coram’s typically robust style he said it should be used ‘if ever hereafter the inhabitants of the town of Taunton should be more civilized than they now are, and if they should incline to have a Church of England built amongst them, or in their town…’

King's Chapel BostonHe left the land in trust with the King’s Chapel in Boston, where he worshipped, along with a substantial collection of books. Coram’s books became the basis for the parish’s ministry. By the mid-nineteenth century, Taunton had grown to a busy port. The townspeople were from a wide range of Christian denominations, including a strong and growing Episcopal community. The church took Saint Thomas as its patron, in part to honour Thomas Coram. The third and present St Thomas’ Church was consecrated in 1859, and was funded entirely by subscription. The church’s 250th anniversary celebration in 1978 was attended by the Bishop of London and representatives of the Coram Foundation.  Today the church archives are held in a room in the parish house. 

The church and Coram’s 250th anniversary celebrations

In 1989, when the Coram Foundation for Children celebrated its 250th anniversary, the Book of Common Prayer, given to St. Thomas’ Church by Thomas Coram, was returned to London on loan to the foundation for their celebration.

Sailing home

Coram did not return to England a wealthy man. He borrowed heavily and had to promise to sell parts of the ship before he left Boston. By the time he returned, Hunt, his original employer for the US venture, was dead.  The ship became the subject of a protracted court case in the English courts, which was eventually settled in his favour.

Later links with America

Rev Thomas Bray memorial plaqueCoram was a friend and supporter of the Rev Thomas Bray, the Anglican clergyman behind the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Bray was especially interested in setting up public  libraries in Britain and America, and  to establish colonial missions to native Americans. Coram was an enthusiastic supporter of Bray’s work, especially through the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which Bray founded. They met in America and their close friendship continued on Coram’s return to London. Bray lived nearby, as he was Rector of St Botolph’s, Aldgate.

 

Coram and the founding of Georgia

Before Bray died, he suggested a colony be founded for the ‘necessitous poor’ in South Carolina. Coram had by early 1730 become closely involved in this venture and went as part of an initial delegation to the Board of Trade to discuss the new settlement. He accompanied James Oglethorpe, MP and social reformer and another close associate of Bray, who eventually founded the colony of Georgia. Coram’s knowledge and experience was invaluable and he became a trustee in the venture.

Coram and his fellow trustees

Coram worked hard to make Georgia a success. He raised funds and attended meetings regularly about its progress. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees over their refusal to allow women equal rights of inheritance. This was deterring people from coming to settle in the colony and it offended Coram’s sense of fair play. Later, when the rules were amended, Egmont, a fellow trustee, wrote in his diary that, ‘Captain Coram, who was violent for female succession was much pleased with the intended act.’ Coram was also against slavery and at the same meeting, the trustees reaffirmed their refusal to allow slavery in the colony.

Coram and the slave trade

Painting of Native AmericansCoram must have been aware of the slave trade, working in Liverpool and later seeing it in action in America. However, he seems to have been more interested in promoting and supporting native Americans, with whom he lived and worked when in America. He was especially concerned that native American girls were educated. This reflected a key theme in his plans for the Foundling Hospital in that girls as well as boys received an education; the general view at the time was that education was not as important for females.

Correspondence with Jeremiah Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts

Coram and Jeremiah Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts from 1730, wrote regularly to each other, discussing developments in each other’s countries.  Coram often promoted Belcher’s interests and position as Governor in London.

Correspondence with Benjamin Colman

Coram also corresponded for many years with Benjamin Colman, an associate of Bray who had travelled to London and who, on his return, took charge of a Congregational church in Boston. The Puritan/Congregationalists were by this time concerned to widen their appeal and their philosophy reflects those changes in attitudes. Coram and Colman exchanged letters regularly, and many of Coram’s letters survives in historical collections in the US. 

Coram a benefactor to Harvard

Colman was very successful in securing patronage for Harvard. Coram sent him a gift of 24 text books to be used by professors and tutors of divinity at Harvard. Later, Coram learned from a Boston newspaper sent to him by his sister-in-law that Colman had ordained three missionaries to preach to the native Americans. Coram was encouraged by this - it was in keeping with his own concerns for the education and welfare of native Americans. He was also concerned to counter the influence of French Jesuit priests who were working among the native Americans in the disputed territory in Nova Scotia.  Coram offered to send more books, this time for the missionaries to use in their work and asked Colman to consult the president of Harvard about the acceptability of his plan. Within the year, a chest of assorted books had been sent out and Coram encouraged others to make similar donations.

Coram and American visitors to London

Coram always had a special interest in the needs of those who had come to London from America. Concerned at the hardship suffered by New England sailors in the city, he set up a bank to provide relief for them and wrote to Colman about the problems they faced. Later, when two Mohicans came to London to apply to the king for redress after their people had been defrauded of their land, Coram took up their case and argued fiercely for them.

Teaching children about Thomas Coram

 Are you a teacher or do you work in a school? Find out about our Captain Coram citizenship resource.

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