After seventeen years and half’s contrivance, labour and fatigue I have obtained a charter for establishing a hospital for the reception, maintenance, proper instruction and employment of exposed and deserted young children. -Thomas Coram in a letter to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, 15 September 1739
In 1742, a year after the first child was received into the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram fell out with his colleagues and failed to qualify for the General Committee that managed the institution’s affairs.
But his vision for the protection and welfare of foundling children remained at the Hospital’s heart, especially in terms of promoting their health and giving them an education so that they could support themselves through work.
Protecting children’s health
A list of children inoculated against smallpox at the Foundling Hospital on 26 August, 1772
From the start, the governors of the Hospital went to considerable lengths to protect the children from the infectious diseases that were responsible for many deaths in similar charitable institutions.
Children entering the Foundling Hospital were screened and turned away if they showed any signs of infection. Following their admission, they were sent to wet nurses in the countryside to give them a good start. There they remained until they were five and six and returned to the hospital where they enjoyed a healthy diet including vegetables, meat, fruit and clean milk from the hospital’s own cow.
Children were also inoculated against the endemic disease smallpox, probably on the advice of Coram’s old friend, Dr Richard Mead who, as well as being a pioneer of smallpox inoculation, was an influential governor of the Hospital and eminent physician. He played an important role in the early days of the institution, often attending to look after sick children and advising on their care. It was probably down to him that by 1756, of the 247 foundling children who had been inoculated against smallpox, only one had died of the disease.
Respecting children’s right to an education
During his campaign to establish the Foundling Hospital, Coram had stressed that once they were educated, foundlings could become useful members of society.
Accordingly, the children’s education was geared towards giving them skills to undertake and sustain an apprenticeship. Emphasis was placed on practical training, partly for its moral benefits but also to instil habits of industry. Practical skills of a domestic nature were particularly important for the girls. Both boys and girls were also taught to read and instructed in the principles of religion.
Unusually for the period, music also became a part of their education. Generally, music was thought to be an unsuitable subject for charity children. But the governors of the hospital thought that it would give blind and disabled children, who were unable to do manual labour, a means to support themselves. Over time, music was taught more widely throughout the Hospital with performances given to raise money.
Promoting the education of girls
The fact that foundling girls were taught to read was in line with Coram’s advanced views on the education of girls. In 1739, he said in a letter to the prominent American minister, Benjamin Colman, that it was as, if not more, important for girls to be educated than boys because they were more likely to be responsible for their children’s formation.
An Evil amongst us here in England is to think Girls having learning given them is not so very Material as for boys to have it. I think and say it is more Material for Girls, when they come to be Mothers, will have the forming of their Childrens lives and if their Mothers be good or Bad the Children generally take after them, so that Giving Girls a vertuous Education is a vast Advantage to their Posterity as well as to the Publick. -Thomas Coram in a letter to Benjamin Colman, 1737
Giving children the skills to earn a living
An apprentice master's reference
"This is to certify to whom it may concern, that John King the younger of Newbury is willing to take as an apprentice Virgil Matthews, a boy belonging to the Hospital for the maintenance of poor and destitute young children. The above John King is a shoemaker, and is industrious and of good credit."
Coram’s hope was that, given an education, foundling children, who had no family to support them when sick or old, would be able to earn a living and gain security. Work at the Hospital prepared them for this. The boys were employed in the garden or pumping water and mangling laundry while girls did all sorts of household work to make them fit for service.
Generally, the children were apprenticed from around 11 years old. The plan was for them to work on the land or at sea or in domestic service but, in reality, they were employed in a wider variety of occupations, in particular with London's increasing numbers of tradesmen who were meeting the expanding capital's needs.
Significantly, the Hospital maintained its contact with the foundling children while they were apprenticed - considering it a duty to care for them until they were discharged from apprenticeship in their early 20s. Apprentice masters had to provide references and registers kept by the Hospital documented where and to whom the children were sent where they were frequently visited by Hospital staff.
List of invalid children including Blanch Thetford "incurably blind of both eyes".
Some disabled children and those unfit for work remained at the Hospital. For example, one Blanch Thetford, admitted in 1758, was paid as a singer in the Hospital chapel. Later she also taught music to another blind foundling and remained at the Hospital until her death at the age of 75.