I recently visited The Foundling Museum near Russell Square. I had originally visited a few years ago, but the museum has been refurbished since, and I fancied going again.
The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1741 by Thomas Coram, a statue of whom can be seen outside the museum. He campaigned for seventeen years before being granted a royal charter by George II in 1739. The hospital cared for children until 1954, when the last pupil was placed in foster care. In total, around 25,000 children were cared for by the hospital, which was Britain’s first children’s charity.
The museum, which occupies one of the hospital’s original buildings, covers four floors. The ground floor has an exhibition on the history of the Foundling Hospital, explaining that most of the children arrived here because their mothers couldn’t care for them, either because they had been widowed or because they had “got into trouble” while unmarried. As more and more babies were in need of a home, a lottery system was introduced: mothers had to take a ball out of a cloth bag; a white ball meant that their baby would be accepted, while a black ball meant that they would be turned away. The women had to prove that they were of previous good character: later in the museum there were letters from parents and statements from employers, confirming the character of girls who wanted the hospital to care for their children.
Mothers were allowed to leave tokens with their children, on the off chance that they were able to return and reclaim them if their circumstances improved. This did happen occasionally, but most women would never see their children again. The display of tokens is incredibly poignant and moving: they range from jewellery to buttons to any small item that was reasonably unique.
Life in the hospital was strict: children were kept to a regimented timetable, had to obey many rules, and were made to wear a uniform. In fairness, they were well-treated and given enough to eat: compared to many poor children they were well off. The children were educated and trained for service; later, many foundlings went into the armed forces, where they tended to adapt to the life very well given their upbringing. The later part of the exhibition looks at some of the last orphans to belong to the hospital, many of whom are still alive, and who have shared their experiences.
Nowadays, Coram still has a role, helping children and young people to develop their skills and emotional health, finding adoptive parents and upholding the rights of children. The museum, though, focuses on the past. The rest of the rooms on the ground floor and the first floor are laid out as they would have been several centuries ago: the ground floor room the very same in which women had to take part in the heartbreaking lottery, the upstairs rooms richly furnished and ornamented with paintings. The hospital was the first public art gallery, Coram having cajoled and persuaded several artists, including William Hogarth, to donate their work.
The top floor of the museum is home to the Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally-important collection relating to the composer, including manuscripts, printed music and books. Handel left the score of the Messiah to the Foundling Hospital in his will.
The museum has a programme of temporary exhibitions. The current exhibition is The Fallen Woman, which runs until 3 January. It looks at the representation in art of “the fallen woman”, particularly in the nineteenth century, including the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Richard Redgrave, George Frederic Watts and Thomas Faed. The exhibition is certainly interesting and explores the myth in a compelling way.
I enjoyed my visit to the Foundling Museum: it’s well worth exploring and does tell a fascinating story.
Address: 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ
Opening Hours: 10-5 Tues-Sat, 11-5 Sun
Prices: Adults £8.25; concessions £5.50; children, Friends and Art Fund members free