The Real Foundling Hospital in London
Though the musical Hetty Feather is a work of fiction based upon a popular children’s book, the author of that novel, Jacqueline Wilson, got the idea for her main character after doing some charitable work where she learned more about the real Foundling Hospital.
That real Foundling Hospital was established in London when a British mariner and shipbuilder, Thomas Coram, returned to his native country in 1720 after many years’ living in America. Coram was greatly disturbed to see children, abandoned by their parents and ignored by society, suffering as they tried to live alone in the streets of London. Thomas Coram set about to change these circumstances by rallying influential men and women to embrace these children and their plight. By bringing the matter to the attention of respected members of society, including artists and scientists, wives of noblemen, and, ultimately, King George II and his wife Queen Caroline, Coram finally secured a charter for the Foundling Hospital, which admitted its first children in 1741.
The Foundling Hospital continued to gather public support and approval through the efforts of Coram and, surprisingly, a group of dedicated artists who, through their charitable actions, became early governors of the institution. Artist William Hogarth, composer George Frideric Handel, and author Charles Dickens are just some of the artistic and literary figures who built relationships with the Foundling Hospital and advocated for its support.
Most children who arrived at the Foundling Hospital were given new names to protect the identities of their parents. Mothers were allowed to leave a token which could be used as an identifying marker if, when financially stable and able to resume parental duties, they came to reclaim their children. Because of that, children were able to be fostered as infants and toddlers in outside homes, but most were ineligible for adoption and were returned to the hospital when they reached school age. Children were taught to read and write, given religious instruction and even music lessons, and reared to take their place as members of the working class. Most girls learned domestic skills while boys were mainly brought up to serve in the military.
The Foundling Hospital cared for over 25,000 children in its 200-year-plus operation. In 1954 the last foundling child was placed in foster care, and the name of the institution was changed simply to Coram. Coram now is a leading adoption agency and child advocacy charity in the United Kingdom, continuing the mission of its founder by seeking loving families for children and providing support services to them to assure they have a chance at a better life.