Thomas Coram's playlist
Thomas Coram’s life was bounded by music, from his earliest days at sea, when life on board merchant ships was played out to the rhythm of the songs sailors sang, to the fund-raising concerts conducted by Handel at the Foundling Hospital, which made the Hallelujah Chorus famous.
Coram’s greatest achievement was the establishment of the Foundling Hospital, as a place where children who might be abandoned or destitute could be taken and, in his utilitarian view, saved to be useful members of society.
Music was central to his plan; spiritually and physically, the hospital chapel was at the centre of the foundlings’ lives. Most would sing in the choir and learn to play instruments. Many of the boys went into military service as bandsmen.
Visitors flocked to attend Sunday services to hear the Foundling Hospital choir – in the 19th century, Charles Dickens is one of many famous names who rented a pew – and fundraising concerts have been an important feature throughout our 275-year history.
Coram’s commitment to helping people runs as a thread throughout his life; right up until his death, in his 84th year, he was putting projects together to help people.
We have compiled a playlist for Thomas Coram. Some of it is music he would probably have heard, some reflects his interests and concerns at the hospital and beyond, and some of it is music he would pick today as he continued to campaign and argue for vulnerable people.
Click on the titles listed to hear the pieces or visit our YouTube channel.
In 1749 the composer George Frideric Handel went to a meeting of the governors of the new Foundling Hospital, where the problem of raising money to complete the chapel was discussed. The minutes record the composer’s proposal, readily agreed by the governors:
Mr Handel being present and having generously and charitably offered a performance of vocal and instrumental music to be held at this Hospital, and that the money arising therefrom should be applied to the finishing the chapel of the Hospital.
Handel’s concert included the Foundling Hospital Anthem, ‘Blessed are they that considereth the poor’, which he composed specially for the concert, to be sung by the foundling children. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended, ensuring that the concert was a society event too. The chapel and church music were literally and spiritually at the centre of Thomas Coram’s plan for the Hospital, and fundraising concerts were crucial fundraising events.
This song, about the life of merchant sailors, was popular during Coram’s time although it dates back to King Henry VIII. He would certainly understand its sentiments. One of his last projects was to set up a bank in London to provide relief for sailors from New England suffering hardship in London. As a merchant seaman himself, Thomas Coram might well have heard Three Poor Mariners sung on board ship, in the streets, and in coffee houses and taverns – he may well have sung it himself. In the 1600s, this song was usually sung to a well-known dance tune; the tune and lyrics feature in an important and very popular work in the history of folk songs, Thomas D'Urfey's Wit and Mirth, or Pills to Purge Melancholy (vol i, 1698 and 1707). Many foundling boys went to sea – they left the care of the Foundling Hospital to serve in the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and the Royal Marines.
John Gay’s satire, the Beggar’s Opera, written in 1728, was as much a landmark in musical performance as the new oratorio form that Handel’s chose for Messiah. Gay’s attacks on politics, poverty, corruption and injustice – and the fashion for Italian opera - are presented through ballads and songs. Gay wrote the words and drew on popular songs of the time for tunes all could hum. Thomas Coram would recognise many of Gay’s targets and his letters suggest that he would probably have enjoyed Gay’s robust humour too. Coram understood the vulnerability of Gay’s female characters and of the young henchman Filch, as explained by Mrs Peachum here. The dangers of life on the streets of London – especially the risks to women and their children, were the driving forces behind Coram’s 19-year campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital.
As a trustee, Thomas Coram was among the founders of the American colony of Georgia and had a major influence in shaping the laws and principles of the state. It was his intention for much of his life to return to America, so Hoagy Carmichael’s classic song – the official song of the state since 1979 – is particularly appropriate. Ray Charles, who was born in Georgia, performs the best-known version but this is the original from 1930, with Carmichael himself singing and, on cornet, Bix Beiderbecke in one of his last recordings.
Thomas Coram was fiercely loyal to the British monarchy in the manner this song suggests. The lyrics and music to Here's a Health unto His Majesty were first published in 1667, in the reign of Charles II, and it remained a popular song throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, many of the boys brought up in the Foundling Hospital later served as bandsmen in the British Army. Fittingly, it is now the regimental marching tune of the Royal Army Medical Corps. In Coram today the military links are long gone but music remains integral to our services. Our music therapists work with children with communication problems, in groups or individually, helping them to express themselves.
Thomas Coram believed in equal rights for men and women. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees that Georgia should offer rights of inheritance to women on the same basis as men – and won the argument. He was believed that education was at least as vital for girls as for boys, and so it was from the start at the Foundling Hospital. This song about rights for women was published in the feminist magazine the Philadelphia Minerva in 1795, when Thomas Coram was living in America. The song was clearly inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, whose best-selling book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, was published in 1792.
Certainly a popular rhyme in Thomas Coram’s time, its origins are disputed. One theory is that the song refers to Blackbeard the pirate. Coram’s voyage to America would have taken him through the waters between the Carolinas and the Caribbean where Blackbeard (originally Edward Teach, c.1680-1718), the most feared pirate of the time, attacked merchant ships. Coram and his crew would have been on the lookout for pirates and Teach in particular.
In his old age, Thomas Coram would have heard the song sung in the streets of London. The first verse appeared in print in Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book, published in London around 1744. It is tempting to imagine Thomas Coram sitting in his regular place outside the Foundling Hospital chapel, listening to foundlings singing this song and telling them about his adventures avoiding Blackbeard. But history isn’t that neat, so while he could have done so, we don’t know whether he did.
Handel was a key figure in the early days of the hospital. Following the success of the first concert, he came every year for the rest of his life to conduct a performance of the Messiah, raising the equivalent of £500,000 for the hospital. He became a governor and in his will, left the hospital a fair copy of the score as well as an organ for the chapel. The performances at the hospital established Messiah as a major choral work with an international appeal. We still celebrate our links to the famous composer, most recently in the ‘Sing for Coram, Day in which 150 Coram supporters sang Handel choruses, to celebrate the granting of the Royal Charter 275 years ago.