21 ladies of quality and distinction
In Georgian society, the only way to get anything done was to enlist the support of the titled, preferably including royalty. So Thomas Coram knew that to realise his ‘darling project’ as he called the Foundling Hospital, he needed a royal charter. The power of such a document, then and now, was that it would ensure that the hospital would be built, and would give royal status to the new organisation.
It took Coram 17 years of campaigning before the charter was granted in 1739. Crucial to his success were the women he called ‘21 Ladies of quality and distinction’. Their influence not only led ultimately to the support of King George II, it also ensured a steady flow of donations to build and run the hospital.
Coram’s strategy was to visit the women at their homes to enlist their support and through them, the support of their husbands and friends, Queen Caroline, and, ultimately King George II.
The group gives an extraordinary insight into the perils of family and marriage for wealthy women from titled families. Virtue and good breeding were all-important. In practice, this meant that the 21 ladies had little say in how they lived their lives and, especially, in the choice of husband.
Who were the 21 Ladies of Quality and Distinction?
First to sign Thomas Coram’s petition, in March 1729, was a teenager, Charlotte Seymour, the Duchess of Somerset. Her husband, the sixth Duke, was a senior member of the court of George II. Charlotte was his second wife and they married when he was 63 and she was more than 40 years younger.
In April of the same year, Anne Vaughan, the Duchess of Bolton, signed, followed three days later by her mother-in–law, Henrietta Needham, the Dowager Duchess.
Anne Vaughan’s husband, the third duke, abandoned her almost as soon as they had married, to set up home with his mistress. Lady Mary Montagu, a contemporary, described the duchess as ‘despised by her husband and laughed at by the public.’
Sarah Cadogan, the Duchess of Richmond, signed on 22nd December 1729. She was married to the Duke when she was 13 and he was 15, an arrangement that came about as part settlement of the money her father owed his father through gambling. Despite this rocky start, the pair became known as one of the great marriages of the age. When Thomas Coram came to call, she was 19 and had had four children, only one of which had survived infancy -- so she knew full well what it meant to lose a child.
Ladies with links to the Queen
All 21 signatories were Ladies of the Bedchamber to Queen Caroline and would have told her about Thomas Coram’s campaign. A much less formal gathering than that of her husband, Queen Caroline’s court was renowned as a place where artists, scientists, philosophers and others from all over Europe came to share ideas, gossip and bring interesting objects to display in the queen’s ‘Cabinet of Curiosities.’ Many of the courtiers went on to be the charity’s founding supporters.
We know that Caroline was interested in the Foundling Hospital because she commissioned a pamphlet about the running of a similar institution for lone children in Paris. Before it was published, however, Caroline died. George was distraught and although her death must have been seen as a major setback for the campaign, George signed the royal charter in 1739, commanding that the Foundling Hospital be built.
Throughout their lives, the 21 ladies and their friends continued to support the charity, giving regular and substantial donations, attending concerts and visiting the children. The governors held ‘Ladies Breakfasts’ and crowds would gather to see the ladies arrive in their carriages. This early example of celebrity culture proved extremely popular – so much so that the windows had to be nailed shut so people would not climb in to petition the women for their own causes.
Celebrating the 21 Ladies at The Foundling Museum
This autumn, in the centenary of female suffrage, The Foundling Museum wants to celebrate the achievements of a group of remarkable women whose pioneering actions have gone unrecognised for nearly 300 years. Visit The Foundling Museum for more information.