Wednesday July 22 2015
Needing an escape from packing boxes I thought I would give myself a short break. My original plan had been to tackle the Handel House, handily central but they are having something of a makeover to include Jimi Hendrix in their experience so I thought it might be better to wait and try the Foundling Museum instead, not realising how extensive it is – four floors of varied delights though I was ready to think I had seen it all after the ground floor (no helpful signs saying ‘ Museum continues on upper floors’) .
With a double concession for age and National Trust membership the entrance cost was quite modest. This, the UK’s first purpose-built home (institution might be a better word) for parentless children, was the idea of a certain Captain Coram, who on returning to the UK from his naval career was appalled at the number of abandoned or dying children on the streets of London – the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and migration from country to town had increased the population of the poor and many a mother single or otherwise could not afford to look after ‘another mouth’. While waiting for his Royal Charter, Captain Coram did not give up but trundled London’s streets getting signatures in support from the (mainly) female wealthy. The Charter (on display in one of the early cabinets) came through in 1739, construction by ‘public subscription’ started in 1742 and by 1745 the building was up and running.
Unlike many other countries both then and now captain Coram did not opt for a ‘baby hatch’ – he planned to meet the mothers also, and interview them.
Initially the ‘hospital’ was so overwhelmed with mothers pleading to have their children ‘looked after’ that they ran a lottery system – white balls signified that you secured your child a place. Whichever way the decision went it was distressful and by far the most poignant display is the cabinet of tokens – little keepsakes left with the child along with a promise to come back and get them. These are as humble as wee scraps of material and stand in stark contrast to the comparative opulence of the Georgian homes of the wealthy middle classes that would have supported Captain Coram in his endeavours. Homes such as we had seen for Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens which were as nothing compared to Wellington’s perhaps.
Many of the children were initially placed with foster carers (?wet nurses) outside London and then returned to the Foundling Hospital at ages 3-5 for what was surely a very strict and regimented upbringing . By all accounts physical needs were well met – there are samples of menus and the innovative appointment of a doctor who came regularly and provided a screening and inoculation service. Dr Richard Mead was both ground-breaking in his research (contagious diseases anyone?) and in the ideas he had for the children at the Foundling Hospital where he made sure the building contained a pharmacy and sick room.
What the children lacked of course was any sense of identity, belonging or being valued or loved.
On arrival the children were given a number and bare details entered into a registry (immaculate record keeping was the order of the day) and eventually renamed – a list on the wall shows that the names of the ‘great and the good’ were often redeployed to the foundlings – perhaps in the fond hope this might prove a spur to greater things. Maybe the little ones did not know who Julius Caesar, Geoffrey Chaucer or Francis Drake were, or more understandably popular fictional characters. But with up to 400 children aged 3/5 to 14 life was never going to be anything other than regimented, institutionalised and soul destroying . It was not clear how many mothers were later in a position to reclaim their children if their situations improved.
With comparatively few artefacts to display (written records and lists abound, the uniforms no different from ‘below stairs’ wear seen elsewhere in historical homes) the museum manages to convey the poignancy of the children’s lost histories. By the 20th century (when the school had moved to the country) there were enough survivors for there to be oral history and the memories, some good many depressing, echo as you walk around. Another strength of the museum is the way it continues to harness art, music and literature to depict the children’s lives.
Obviously confidentiality prevents any detailed accounts of the current lives of looked after children but I was very taken with the art work by Emma Middleton where she had collaborated with Ealing and Westminster’s looked after children to convey how a careless comment by a teacher can really hurt those with complex family histories or poor self-esteem.
The museum has a long history of philanthropic support from the artistic community, what we would call celebrity endorsement, and it is clear this is a tradition which persists, very fruitfully, to today. Whereas the original foundations had support from Dickens, Hogarth and Handel today’s continues with support from the popular children’s author Jacqueline Wilson (Hetty Feather ) there’s a plot spoiler here, David Shrigley who updates the poignancy of the little tokens and Lemn Sissay poet extraordinaire.
The museum is completely right to stress and strengthen its 21st century links for if you look out of the back windows you will see the two buildings and a garden and playground where Coram continues to work placing children for adoption and forging new and old family bonds.
But back to the original foundlings – what was their future? Girls of course were prepared for a life in service and the boys for apprenticeships. Interestingly by the time of World War I 80% of the boys went into the armed services. Sometimes it is easier to follow life in one institution with a career in another.
From the history of the foundlings you move into the history of the building – firstly on the ground floor a kind of board room, complete with solid table and pictures of bewigged patrons including the interesting John Brownlow who went from foundling to Secretary of the Foundation and Historian. Emma Brownlow’s picture of ‘The Foundling restored to its mother’ has an interesting title (the child seems clearly female) and subject matter.
When I had checked the upstairs was not reserved for staff I was duly astonished to find an extraordinary interior – the Court Room with stucco decorations and generally viewed as one of the finest Rococo ceilings in London – as the fashion for this kind of work was quite short (first half of 18th century) this is even more remarkable. On the walls are two series of pictures alternating – small medallions of similar foundations to the Foundling Hospital – so the Seamen’s Mission at Greenwich, for example, or the Charterhouse and old St George’s Hospital – placed between more worthy religious or mythological paintings. The second even larger room contains a range of pictures, mainly more wig-wearing patrons and board members but certainly Hogarth’s portrait of the founder Captain Coram and its companion piece depicting Dr Mead are worth lingering over.
In contrast to the frivolity of the ceiling the stairs are beautifully solid with a generous scattering of working long-case clocks striking melodiously throughout the visit. Even more melodious are the exhibits of the second floor – the Cloke Bequest of Handel memorabilia. There are two armchairs connected to cd players and I heard another visitor say ‘I could stay here all day listening to Handel’s music’. Frederic Handel was a long-time London resident and had not written much for some years when he presented his ‘Messiah’ for its London preview at and for the Foundling Museum – a performance that has since become an annual tradition. Handel had also provided for distressed, as in impoverished, musicians.
There is a basement to the building, where special exhibitions are put on. Currently there is a presentation about the history of stucco work, nowadays modelled in clay and moulded which is much easier than working with stucco which requires speed and dexterity.
I suppose it would have been nice to see the accommodation for the children as opposed to the grander reception rooms but otherwise I cannot fault the Museum (only established in 2004) for its presentation of its history and that of the foundlings and for maintaining a fine balance between the work of the past and the work of the future.