Wednesday, June 5, 2019

London’s Foundlings

From The Spectator:
One of the oddest of Bloomsbury’s event venues must be the Foundling Museum. The handsome building on Coram’s Fields houses what remains of the London Foundling Hospital, which opened on the site in 1745. Its imposing rooms are lined with oil portraits of past patrons and among the artefacts on display is the original score of George Frideric Handel’s fundraising The Messiah, which he donated to the hospital. In the 18th century the Foundling Hospital was a fashionable cause, and the great and good flocked to associate with its charitable works. 
But some of the museum’s cases tell another story — the history not of great names but of the anonymous children of the desperate poor. The ‘foundlings’ the hospital was built to cater for were not, generally speaking, orphaned children, but babies being given up by mothers who couldn’t care for them, usually because they were unmarried, though occasionally through more general poverty. As a result, shame was written into the foundlings’ existence. Their names were changed on admission and the smart uniforms they later received were a badge of double dishonour, signifying both ‘charity cases’ and ‘bastards’. 
The museum displays identifying tokens left by mothers, either in the hope of reclaiming the child at a later point or so that the baby might grow up to know who he or she was. They include scraps of cloth taken from what the baby was wearing when admitted as well as handstitched hearts, engraved silver badges, charms, buttons and coins snapped in half that could be matched together upon reunion. These are objects redolent with pain, and it can feel incongruous, even voyeuristic, to view them while sipping wine at a reception. 
Yet spectatorship is part of the hospital’s history. In the decades after it opened its doors in 1741, regular admission days were announced in the national press and mobbed by so many desperate mothers that a ballot system had to be introduced. Their grief and humiliation — ‘successful’ mothers had their babies removed immediately — can only have been intensified by the presence of wealthy visitors who paid to watch the spectacle. But the hospital needed these onlookers’ money. It had received its Royal Charter in 1739, thanks to two decades of fundraising and campaigning work by the retired sea captain, Thomas Coram. But more funds were always required. (Read more.)

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