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Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital, from a print in the LMA collection

This article explores the history of the Foundling Hospital together with some of the research that has been carried out on the archives held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). It was written by Janette Bright and Gillian Clark who have both carried out research using the archives.

History and organisation​

Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital is the longest-established children's charity in England, founded in 1739 and still providing care today under the name of Coram. Since that date it has kept its records, its music and its art collection safely. The administrators set a consistently high standard of record keeping and record retention. There are long runs of documents of all kinds and entries in one series cross check with those in another with a high level of accuracy. This collection of paper records, with exceptions that include the current Coram client records, now occupies 800 linear feet of shelving at the LMA (LMA reference: A/FH). The closure period for all records with personal data, including governors' minutes, is 110 years.

The Foundling Hospital opened in Hatton Garden and moved to Lambs Conduit Fields. During the 1750s it expanded with residential units at Ackworth (Yorkshire), Shrewsbury, Aylesbury, Barnet, Chester and Westerham (Kent). It was supported by the arts world, notably by William Hogarth and George Handel, whose work was on show or performed for the benefit of the children. Charles Dickens, who lived nearby, was a patron. In the 20th century the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children moved to Redhill, and then to Berkhamsted, becoming the Thomas Coram School. In 1950 the school became Ashlyns, managed by Hertfordshire County Council, while the Foundation returned, with its art treasures, still a child care charity, to 40 Brunswick Square, part of original Bloomsbury site. The rest of that site became Coram Fields, a play area for children in perpetuity. At the beginning of this century Coram Campus was built next door to No. 40, to house Coram's child care work, leaving this building to become the Foundling Museum.

A letter left with a foundling in 1760

A letter left with a foundling in 1760

​The Foundling Hospital was established for the "maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children" with an executive Committee of Governors and about 300 well-placed non-executive Governors, who were prepared to use their influence to promote its cause. They were responsible for the running of the London site and for a network of wet nurses in rural areas who looked after the babies for the first five years of their lives and who were supervised by volunteer inspectors, often family and friends of the non-executive Governors.

The Governors met regularly and recorded all their decisions in the minutes of the meetings and in Books of Regulation. They arranged for registers to be created to record the admission of each child and the token it brought in, its placement at nurse, the inspector supervising the nurse in her home parish, illness, smallpox inoculation, death or survival of the child to apprenticeship. They kept incoming correspondence and accounts from the inspectors, copybooks of out-letters, receipts for the wages of the nurses, infirmary records, burial certificates for babies who died; petitions for admitting and for reclaiming a child and so on.

In 1801 (and after 18,000 children) the Governors changed the objective of caring for exposed and deserted children to that of caring for illegitimate children. They were admitted only if the petitions submitted by their mothers made a sufficiently strong case for their ability to make a new start in life. Children were with foster mothers during their early years, returning to London for schooling and moving on to apprenticeships. The governors recorded all their decisions and kept applications they received for the posts of school master, drill master, matron, steward, apothecary, preacher and organist – and copies of the rules of conduct that they created for them all. They kept the orders of service for chapel, sermons that were preached, books of household goods and provisions ordered, school masters' and weekly lesson reports. For 150 years they maintained registers of children with foster carers and in their apprenticeships, the apprentice indentures and testimonials from the masters. In about 1850, some of the tokens left with the children as identifiers in the 1700s were separated from the admissions records and put in display cases in the building alongside the art collection to attract interest in the charity.

The work of the charity in the 20th century moved to the support of single mothers through day care, fostering and adoption. Administrative and client records were deposited at LMA. Coram continues these services today and has extended into working with both parents and with vulnerable children. In 2004 the Foundling Museum opened to display some of the documents, photographs and artefacts, notably a re-creation of the room where the General Committee met, the tokens in their display cases, and to house the substantial art collection, including Hogarth's portrait of Coram, and the music collection, among which is Handel's copy of Messiah.

Front cover of a burials record from the hospital chapel

Front cover of a burials record from the hospital chapel

​Archives and research

Many researchers have been inspired to write both short papers and longer published accounts of aspects of the Foundling Hospital – the vast amount of records available means there are still many areas of research still untouched. As well as two major accounts of the running of the institution in the 18th century (Nichols and Wray, History of the Foundling Hospital and Gillian McClure, Coram's Children), which were both written almost entirely with the use of the court, general and subcommittee records, other more recent publications have also used the admission billets, petitions and correspondence (Alysa Levene, Tanya Evans, F Barret-Ducrocq and Gillian Clark). Family history, a subject much in vogue at present, has also generated many articles – sometimes tracing specific individuals from their foundling roots to the modern day.

The University of the Third Age (U3A) used the records in 2006/7 for a project that looked into the apprenticed foundlings - their lives both before and after admission, and are now about to embark on a new project looking at the education of children in the Victorian era.

The Foundling Museum uses the archives for its permanent and temporary exhibitions and in 2010 an exhibition called Material Witness, will look in depth at the textiles left as identifiers and tokens. The tiny fabric scraps found amongst the admission billets form the largest archive of datable textiles in Europe, if not the world (see John Styles, The Dress of the People).

Other on going research using the archives includes an in depth look at the tokens and identifiers themselves, the lives of the governors who run the institution, and research into the introduction of small pox vaccination.

A child's admission record, with a token left by its mother

A child's admission record, with a token left by its mother

​Like Hogarth, Handel, and Dickens, many writers, musicians and artists are still inspired by the lives of the children and the running of the organisation. Jamilla Gavin’s Coram Boy, Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather and countless other contemporary artists have created work inspired by the children, the tokens or the hospital – including in this year work by Paula Rego, Mat Collishaw and Tracy Emin. Janette Bright first came to look at the tokens at the hospital and in the archives in the hope that they would inspire her own textile art (see the website of the East Anglian Stitch Textiles for more information). She ended up being so inspired by the archives that with Gillian Clark she has now become an authority on the tokens, research on which will form the basis of a book they are co-authoring, and hope to publish shortly called The Token Triangle.

Further information

Research guides

Related articles

Searching for Sarah - the quest for evidence on the origins of a of a foundlings history?
Foundling Hospital petitions - description of some of the work that goes on behind the scenes at LMA

Find out more about our collections relating to the care of the sick, dispossessed and destitute on our collections pages.

14 May 2012
Last Modified:
30 August 2019