Recently I visited the Foundling Museum, in Coram Fields, Bloomsbury, London. Near there, in 1989, my first son had played happily in Coram Fields, where no adults are allowed unless accompanied by children. Later, when my youngest son was around seven, I discovered Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy, a gripping tale set in eighteenth century London and Gloucester, centered on the ‘Coram man’ who wanders the countryside glibly and deceivingly promising unwed mothers that he will deliver their babies to the Coram Foundling Hospital.
We read it together, hooked by the dark tale of cruelty to children and the boys that overcame their tragic beginnings.
Recently the Coram Foundling Hospital came to my attention again, because of the marvelous and most moving online exhibition, ‘Threads of Feeling’, which displayed the fabric tokens which mothers left with their babies in the hope that some day they might be able to return and claim their child, who, meantime, had been given a new identity. Between 1741 and 1760, 16,282 babies were brought to the Hospital. The tokens left by those mothers in a position to do so varied from written notes, a coin or medal, or a piece of fabric. As The Independent newspaper commented: ‘In the face of such testament of tenderness, words are redundant.’
The Foundling Hospital was originally named ‘The Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Children’. It opened in 1741. A sea captain, Thomas Coram, was shocked on his return home to find abandoned children on the streets of London. He began a campaign to create a home for the children of women pregnant outside of wedlock. Composer George Frederic Handel and artist William Hogarth were early supporters of his campaign, which was later also supported by Charles Dickens. Coram continues today as a children’s charity devoted to protecting vulnerable children.
Continuing the tradition of artists’ involvement with the Hospital, the modern Coram Foundation sponsors creative fellows. One of the first was writer Jacqueline Wilson who was inspired by her experiences there to write the first of what became the very popular Hetty Feather series. These stories trace the life a feisty nineteenth century girl, abandoned by her mother, at the hospital and through her life beyond. You can see Jacqueline Wilson talking about the project here.
The books have spawned a children’s television series and an app, aimed at lowering anxiety for young children who face hospitalisation.
At the time of my October visit to the Foundling Museum, I was able to see the exhibition ‘Hetty’s Hospital’, a project in which patients and their parents on the oncology and haematology wards at Great Ormond Street Hospital worked with artist Davina Drummond to explore acts of kindness in the hospital.
A wall of sticking plasters records children’s responses to their illness and their carers, and one could listen to the stethoscopes on another wall to hear stories of appreciation for the kindness the staff brought to their tasks.
Too often these stories of kindness get lost in the tales of carelessness and tragedy that happen in hospitals. This exhibition was a great reminder of all the good work that takes place, from a smile and a cuddle to reassurance and going the extra mile.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
Read Bruce Summer’s article about Florence’s Spedale Degli Innocenti foundling hospital here.