Last week I took time out from touring to visit two temporary exhibitions at institutions that have very worthy reasons for visiting and yet understandably might not feature high on the list for foreign visitors. Namely the Kristallnacht exhibition at the Weiner Library and a special exhibition on Thomas Coram at the Foundling Hospital.
Thomas Coram is one of the most forward thinking men I know of in the 17th Century and if you’re not familiar with him or the his wonderful work in London then you might like to read my 2016 post https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2016/05/10/thomas-coram-and-the-foundling-hospital/
It’s not often that I write updates on posts if only because usually history doesn’t change too much and I like to write definitively on a subject rather than drag it out but having written about Thomas Coram in London, I thought it might be interesting to look at the big impact that he made during his years in the colonies in what is now the United States.
The prayer book below is one of the highlights of the exhibition and is given by the very first modern speak of the House of Commons who himself was of mighty high standards and integrity against all the odds.
Thomas Coram spent 10 years in America and they were to have a profound influence on his life. He seems to have relished being free of the restrictions of English society and inspired by the opportunities the new country offered him.
Whatever Thomas gained from the colonies, he gave so much more. Thomas Coram had an important influence on America in the shape of vigorous campaigning for the rights of minority groups. He also left a direct legacy of books aimed at encouraging the spread of Anglicanism.
As many people did when they sailed from London, Thomas Coram settled in Boston which is where he met his future wife in the form of Eunice Waite. Eunice was the daughter of an established Boston family that too originally heralded from England.
She was a Congregationalist which was an Anglican church that believed in running its own affairs without too much interference from overseas. Despite their different churches, it wasn’t enough to stop true love and Eunice and Thomas Coram were very happily married for 40 years, until her death after a long period of poor health.
Thomas Coram got on especially well with Sir William Phips, a fellow shipwright and the first royally-appointed governor of Massachusetts. Phips had arrived in Boston to take up his post as governor in May 1691, when the city was in the grip of hysteria over witchcraft and the legal system could not cope with the numbers of people accused.
It wasn’t long until Thomas Coram chose to move slightly out of Boston and he decided to settle down in a little place called Taunton where he worked on establishing a shipbuilding business because the deep water there meant that he could build large ships.
You can still see his shipyards today which are now Taunton Yacht Club. Given it is unlikely I will ever get to Boston, I found the place on Google Street View.
Religion was very important to the people of the time in both England and the colonies and many of those who had settled in Taunton townspeople had left England to establish a community in which they all followed the same religious principles. As is the case in some corners of the world today, anyone who was not of the same religious sect was viewed with distrust. Being a brusk Yorkshire seafarer, Thomas Coram was very outspoken and his new neighbours did not welcome his fierce loyalty to the British Crown, nor his robust Anglicanism.
For his part, Thomas Coram found many colonists a little uncouth and hoped that the inhabitants one day ‘should be more civilised than they now are.’
Religious differences between Thomas and his neighbours soon surfaced. These were played out in the courts where seemingly trivial issues quickly escalated; claims and counter-claims were made; violence was often threatened and sometimes used against Coram. He frequently had to go to the Boston courts to receive a fair hearing as local magistrates, out of fear of their neighbours and/or personal enmity toward Coram, invariably ruled against him.
His various disputes with the people of Taunton came to a head when a mob attacked his home. Coram left Taunton knowing that any legal rulings in his favour from the Boston courts about unfulfilled contracts would not be enforced by the local Taunton officials; further the claims lodged against him by local people for debts might well result in him being imprisoned.
Sadly Thomas Coram returned to England where London benefitted greatly but his house in Taunton is still standing, just across the road from his old shipyards at 2130 Water Street. It is privately owned so you can’t just pop in but it hasn’t changed greatly since his time.
Thomas Coram’s legacy in Taunton is in the shipyard he established and the contribution he made towards the town’s Anglican and now Episcopal church. The Episcopal church was established after the American War of Independence as separate from, but allied to the Church of England when it likely was politically unacceptable to have a church named after a country you fought against.
All along the waterfront where Thomas Coram and his friend John Hathaway had worked, became a centre of ship building and trading ships with trade to Britain, the Caribbean and South America in particular and it became a separate town in its own right, Dighton.
Not only did he leave the church 59 acres of land but also a large collection of books and the town ended up having a strong Christian tradition of many denominations but particularly Episcopalian or as would be known elsewhere, Anglican. The patron saint of the church is Saint Thomas, partly in honour of Mr. Coram.
Thomas Coram also worked along with a friend to create the colony and later state of South Carolina for the ‘necessitous poor’ as well in the campaign to create a colony in Georgia.
As a trustee of the scheme, Coram worked hard to make Georgia a success. He raised funds and attended meetings regularly about its progress. He argued fiercely with his fellow trustees over their refusal to allow women equal rights of inheritance. This was deterring people from coming to settle in the colony and it offended Coram’s sense of fair play. Later, when the rules were amended, Egmont, a fellow trustee, wrote in his diary that, ‘Captain Coram, who was violent for female succession was much pleased with the intended act.’ Coram was also against slavery and at the same meeting, the trustees reaffirmed their refusal to allow slavery in the colony.
Thomas Coram also worked hard at promoting and supporting native Americans, with whom he lived and worked when in America. He was especially concerned that native American girls were educated. This reflected a key theme in his plans for the Foundling Hospital in London in that girls as well as boys received an education; the general view at the time was that education was not as important for females. When two Mohicans came to London to apply to the king for redress after their people had been defrauded of their land, Coram took up their case and argued fiercely for them and their rights.
Even on his return to London, Coram took a great interest in furthering the wellbeing of the colonies and he corresponded frequently with Jeremiah Belcher, Governor of Massachusetts from 1730 discussing developments in each other’s countries. Coram often promoted Belcher’s interests and position as Governor in London.
In his latter years he also worked with the Congregational puritans in Boston who were trying to widen their appeal and relax their philosophy.
Being such a passionate believe in education it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Thomas Coram sent a gift of 24 text books to be used by professors and tutors of divinity at Harvard and influenced a Bostonian to preach to and educate native Americans Later, Coram learned from a Boston newspaper sent to him by his sister-in-law that Colman had ordained three missionaries to preach to the native Americans. Once he learned of the programme, Coram sent over several chests of books and encouraged other forward thinking Londoners to do the same.
If you enjoyed reading about Thomas Coram then you might like my 2017 post on possibly the most forward-thinking person I am aware of, Jeremy Bentham who despite being several centuries in age, you can still pop by and meet at UCL.