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Behind the Scenes

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The Gentleman Rogue


Behind the Scenes

In the early eighteenth century London was very much a city of two extremes. On one hand there was ostentatious wealth, extravagance, and style and luxury, evident in the glittering lives, fashions and leisure pursuits of the Ton. But on the other, was a darker, seamier side, of poverty and crime. This contrast is something that Emma sees all too clearly in The Gentleman Rogue and it affects her deeply.

Something that existed to bridge the gap was London's Foundling Hospital and as it features in Emma and Ned's story I thought you might be interested in discovering a bit more about it.

The Foundling Hospital

Abandonment and Infanticide – a national embarrassment
One of the most tragic effects of the poverty that was so rife in the rookeries and East End of London was the abandonment of children. Babies and infants that could not be cared for were left on doorsteps, in parks and even on rubbish heaps. The problem was considered a national embarrassment and was even mentioned in the House of Commons. Without a welfare system, the poor relied on the charity of the parish who levied a Poor Rate charge from ‘respectable’ citizens of the parish. This was used to place poor children in the care of either a workhouse or a type of foster mother known as a parish nurse or killing nurse!

The ordinary man who did something about it
Many complained about the terrible state of affairs but only Thomas Coram decided to do something about it.
Born in 1668 in Lyme Regis to a working class family, Coram went to sea at age 11, was apprenticed to a London shipwright at 16, and at 25 moved to Boston in Massachusetts, America for a number of years, where he met and married his wife, Eunice, before the couple returned to live in England.

Coram was appalled by the abandoned children he saw by the London roadsides. In 1722, when he was semi-retired, he came up with the novel idea of a specialized institute to care for such children, a so called Foundling Hospital, and went about canvassing support and donations.

The term 'foundling' – what does it mean?
Foundling is an old fashioned word used to describe a child of unknown parentage, abandoned by his or her mother. Largely they were children of poor unmarried women.

Getting the Ton on board and a royal Charter
But to create a Foundling Hospital a charter of incorporation had to first be granted by the king.

Statue of Thomas Coram

Coram was not part of polite society; he had no way of petitioning the monarch directly. So he went to London’s Ton, to those of high status, unimpeachable respectability and wealth, with his petition and convinced them of his scheme. It took years for Coram to collect their signatures but finally, in October of 1739, King George II signed the Charter and the Hospital for the ‘maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’ was officially incorporated.

The Governors kick Coram out
Coram chose men of influence, power and wealth from the Ton for the board of Governors because he understood that they could best advance the Hospital. Money was raised, plans drawn up, and two years later, in 1741, everything was in place. But around this same time Coram was ousted from the Board who disliked his blunt speaking and criticism of them. He was axed from the organization he had worked so hard to found, and only officially reunited upon his death when he was buried beneath the altar of the Hospital chapel.

Foundling tokens

The first temporary premises at Hatton Garden and putting out the lights
A public notice was issued advertising that the Hospital would open at its first temporary premises, a leased house in Hatton Garden, on 25 March 1741. Anonymity was guaranteed to all mothers, which was critical given the social condemnation and stigma of unwed mothers. The opening was at night and the lighting around the entrance extinguished to help conceal their identities.
The doors opened at 8pm and by midnight the Hospital was full!

The site proper at Bloomsbury
The Hatton Garden site was limited by its small size so the Governors continued fundraising and a new Hospital designed by Theodore Jacobsen (one of the Governors) was built out on the rural edges of London, north of Bloomsbury at Lambs Conduit Field, the perfect location to provide fresh country air, space, and healthy conditions. It
was built in several stages as funds became available, the first stage being opened in 1745. Later stages increased the size and facilities. The west wing housed the boys, and the east wing, the girls. There was a chapel, Governors’ offices and court room, and a picture gallery to entertain visitors from polite society and potential donors.

The Hospital remained at this site for the next 180 years and is at this location in Emma and Ned’s story.

Certificates to help reunite families, and save women from the gallows

The women that left their children at the Hospital believed they were giving them up to a better life, one in which they had a chance of survival and good care. Many hoped to reclaim the children at a future time when their lot had improved, and to this end all mothers were given a certificate of admittance, or receipt, detailing a unique number. This same number stamped on a lead tag was placed around the child’s neck so that the correct child and mother could be reunited. This system could also be used in women’s defence if they were accused, as some were, of infanticide when their child suddenly ‘disappeared’. Being able to prove that they had placed the child in the Hospital saved them from the gallows.

Foundling tokens
Many mothers left a unique keepsake with their child, a token that was some evidence of the link between them, emotionally, and as a means that, if the child ever traced them in the years to come, would be proof of their identity. Tokens were diverse and included embroidered scraps of material from dresses, coins, buttons, brooches, and even labels from ale bottles.

A lottery – black, white and red balls
In the very early days demand for places was so high that the Hospital operated a ballot system, effectively a lucky draw. Three different coloured balls were placed in a bag and the mother blindly picked one. If it was a white ball her child was admitted to the hospital, if a black one, the child was rejected. A red ball meant she went on stand-by – if another child was rejected the mother got another chance to play the lottery. However by the time of Emma and Ned’s story in 1811 this lottery was no longer in use.

Only for the healthy
Notably each child was subjected to a health examination and those who failed it were not accepted.

Another move and a few new names
In 1926 the Hospital relocated from London to Berkhamsted, where it continued to operate as a children’s home until the 1950s when the approach to childcare changed and children were fostered rather than placed in an institute.

The Foundling Museum, London

The charity changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. In 1974 the charity opened the Coram Children’s Centre which pioneered an integrated approach to childcare. In 1999 there was another reorganization and name change.

Thomas Coram’s legacy still alive today
Today the charity is still alive and well and serving the needs of children. Under the name of Coram, it offers a range of services including the placement of children with adoptive or foster families, and the support of young people leaving the care system at the start of their independent lives.

The Foundling Museum
Part of the fittings from the Jacobsen building were saved before its demolition and used in the neo Georgian townhouse built on part of the original Bloomsbury site at 40 Brunswick Square. Today the building is the home of The Foundling Museum telling the story of the foundlings, the charity and its history. It is a beautiful building with a collection of paintings, Georgian furniture and historical documents, including original manuscripts from the composer Handel who was a Governor and supporter of the Hospital. More information about foundlings and the museum can be found at

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