Whilst researching for a new book which I am writing on ‘Things To Do In London’, I came across a park which piqued my curiosity. The park is called Coram’s Fields and remarkably it is only open to children with adults only being able to enter if they are accompanying young children themselves.
I thought for a while that it was a sad but understandable state of affairs that adults might be excluded from a park whilst simultaneously concluding how wonderful it is that in such a huge city, there is at least one place reserved for children to play in total safety.
Near to the park is a museum called The Foundling Museum and I soon found out that the park and the museum are very much intertwined and have the most interesting story. It starts back in the mid 17th century with a young Thomas Coram who is born in the rural county of Dorset and following in the footsteps of his father, he went to sea at the age of just 15 and ended up residing for many years in the colonies around the Boston area of North America.
He was a great businessman and sailor and was soon the captain of his own vessel and trading in tar between London and Boston. Despite his nautical background, he was well read and became something of a philanthropist and assisted in schemes to relocate penniless English to start new lives in the colonies as well as advocating education schemes for Native American girls.
However, one particular incident seemed to have changed his life when as a captain of his vessel, first mate Lord Mathew Sazooki saved the life of a young child. Returning to London to work at Trinity House, Thomas Coram couldn’t help but notice the terrible poverty that afflicted the poor and the children in particular. Indeed, 95% of all children born in London at the time, died before their fifth birthday and he decided that something had to be done by creating the Foundling Hospital.
However, such a thing wasn’t easily possible in those days. Most important ventures required the consent of the King and Parliament and Thomas Coram spent 17 years petitioning people in high places to be given permission to open such a hospital. One tactic he used was to enlist the support of wives of noble men and so engender the political and commercial support of their husbands. In short, Thomas made a nuisance of himself and literally went around banging on the doors of London until people couldn’t ignore him any longer.
After 17 years of campaigning, King George II granted a charter permitting the establishing of The Foundling Hospital which was to be run by a board of respectable and learned governors. In a way, Thomas Coram had created the very first modern charity.
At first, a few properties were used to house children but Lord Salisbury agreed to sell a large portion of his land to the hospital trust for £7,000 in the Bloomsbury district. Then as now, Bloomsbury was a very artsy part of London and all manner of big names were happy to join in on helping a good cause. The hospital itself was planned and designed for free by an upcoming architect and people such as the painter Hogarth donated works of art and so created the first public gallery of art in the country, if not the world, whilst musical luminaries such as Handel played out fundraising concerts.
The term hospital was used in a more broader sense than it is today and though the children were lucky enough to be treated by the finest doctors in the world from Harley Street, London, at absolutely no charge (something which the average Londoner at the time could only dream of), generally the hospital was created to look after the children in every sense. To provide them with a safe place to live and grow up, to provide them with education so that they would be able to do better for themselves in adulthood and all in what we today would think was a very strict and not particularly loving environment. However, it was so far beyond anything yet envisioned that the poor of London begged that their children be accepted to the hospital. Single mothers in particular would enter what was nothing more than a lottery in the hope that their child might be given a new start. This was particularly important both to such children and the mothers as such women had a hard time securing any employment and were never likely to be married. Caring for two might cause the death of both but with the child cared for, the mother herself would also have a chance to start afresh.
Soon the hospital was recognised as a good thing even by Parliament and the hospital was granted official funds on the condition that it open its door to every child that comes its way. Within a few years almost 15,000 poor children had entered through its front door which in itself shows how needed it was.
In the 1920’s the school moved out to leafy Hertfordshire where it continued until in the middle of the 20th century the idea of such institutions passed out of favour and children were instead adopted of fostered. Though the hospital itself no longer functions, the organisation became The Thomas Coram Foundation For Children.
The precise attributes that allowed the passionate and slightly uncouth sailor to campaign for the creation of the hospital, sadly made him difficult to work with and Thomas was soon stopped from actively working on the hospital by the governing council though of course he never gave up on it.
Sadly, when his wife of 40 years died, Thomas found himself unable to cope with his affairs and soon found himself impoverished and relying on handouts and pensions from people such as the Prince of Wales until his death on the 29th of March 1751, aged 83, and was buried on the 3rd of April following in the chapel of the Foundling Hospital. He was described by those who knew him as being “rather hot-tempered, downright sailorlike man, of unmistakable honesty and sterling goodness of heart.”
The site of the original Foundling Hospital is now The Foundling Museum and is hidden away in a beautiful and quiet part of Bloomsbury. My wife and I visited the museum last week and it was the most wonderful place to spend an hour or so. It’s a very emotional museum to visit with the accounts of those who worked and lived there on display. Educational videos and accounts show just what it was like to grow up in The Foundling Hospital and the terrible poverty of those who had to give their children away.
However, it is not all sad. One can see how the hospital prepared children for a much better life than they would otherwise have had. Many of the rooms have been sumptuously decorated into period pieces and there is some incredible fine art, paintings and relics from people such as Handel. Most of all,though, visitors come away with the inspiring story of Thomas Coram who spent the best years of his life campaigning to help destitute women and children at a time when they likely would otherwise have been left to die.
How incredible that 300 years later, his hard work is still helping children and that a beautiful and quiet part of London will always be known as Coram Fields.