The Foundling Hospital was established by Royal Charter on 17 October 1739 by Thomas Coram as a refuge for abandoned children. Its creation in the eighteenth century was unique, and even 120 years later the Hospital was the only institution for the admission of illegitimate children in London listed in a charities directory for 1863.
Returning to Britain in 1719 after establishing a shipwright's business in America, Coram was appalled at the numbers of dead and dying babies he saw in the streets of London, and the failure of the establishment to care for these children. Foundling (i.e. illegitimate) children had been cared for at Christ's Hospital from its foundation in 1552, but a decision to admit only legitimate orphans was taken in 1676. From this date onwards, therefore, the only option for illegitimate children was to be placed in a parish poorhouse, where extremely high mortality rates prevailed and childcare facilities were non-existent. Coram campaigned for twenty years in order to gain support for his scheme. A major difficulty was overcoming widespread prejudice towards illegitimacy, but he managed to enlist the support of many leading members of the aristocracy, the city, the arts and the sciences by a series of petitions to which they signed their names.
The first temporary location of the Hospital was a house in Hatton Gardens, children being admitted there from March 1741 onwards. The following year the foundation stone of the new Hospital was laid on land acquired from the Earl of Salisbury in Lamb's Conduit Fields, Bloomsbury, an as yet undeveloped area beyond the city. The Hospital was designed by Theodore Jacobsen as a plain brick building with two wings and a chapel, built around an open courtyard. By 1747 work had begun on the Chapel. Although not completed until 1753, it was in use before that date, most notably on 1 May 1750 when George Frederick Handel, a patron of the Hospital, directed a performance of the Oratorio 'Messiah' to mark the presentation of the organ to the Chapel. The Hospital received a great deal of patronage from the arts. The painter William Hogarth, a governor of the Hospital, decided to set up an art exhibition in the court room of the new buildings, encouraging other artists to produce work for the Hospital. As a consequence, by the late eighteenth Century the Hospital had become a fashionable place to visit.
Admission to the Hospital was initially restricted because of the lack of funds. Infants were to be less than two months old and in good health to qualify for entry, and admissions were made on a first come first served basis. Once a child had been accepted he or she was baptised and thereby given a new name. The child was then boarded out to a dry or wet nurse in the country. These nurses were mostly in the Home Counties but could be as far away as West Yorkshire Shropshire. The nurses were monitored by voluntary indpectors. On reaching 3 years of age, the child was returned to the Hospital to receive basic schooling and he or she would remain there until apprenticed out to trades or service, or enlisted in the armed forces.
In 1742 the numbers of mothers bringing children to the Hospital was so great and the admissions procedure so disorderly that it was decided to adopt a ballot system to decide which children were admitted. By 1756 the Hospital was forced to ask Parliament for funds. As a consquence for the next four years the Hospital functioned as a quasi-public body receiving government support. In return for that support, however, the Governors were obliged to accept every child presented to them. A number of branch hospitals were established to cope with the large number of children received during this period of 'indiscriminate admission' 1756-1760. These were in Aylesbury, Barnet, Westerham, Ackworth, Chester and Shrewsbury and records survive in the collections for these hospitals, particularly Ackworth Hospital.
In 1760 the period of indiscriminate admission was ended when Parliament withdrew its support and the Hospital was forced to temporarily stop admitting children. When admissions resumed a new system was adopted which involved mothers submitting written petitions to the Hospital which were then assessed by committee. This petition system formed the basis of all subsequent admissions to the Hospital and the survival of these petitions in the collection provides a valuable insight into the backgrounds and circumstances of the mothers. Although the Hospital had been set up primarily for the care of illegitimate children, the Governors also began to accept children of soldiers killed in war.
The administration of the Hospital remained largely unchanged until 1926 when the buildings and surrounding estate were sold for £1,650,000. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area around the Hospital had been transformed. In 1780s the Hospital had decided to lease out its land to developers who proceeded to build squares, streets, and town houses(the rent from which provided the Hospital with much needed regular income). By 1920s, and in keeping with the trend to move schools and institutions outside of central London to healthier environments, it was felt that the proceeds of selling the estate would secure financially the continued work of the Hospital. Accordingly the estate was sold, the Hospital buildings were pulled down and the children moved to temporary premises at Saint Anne's Schools, Redhill, Surrey, until a new site was found for them at Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire. When the new school opened in 1935, the Governors decided that it should be named Thomas Coram School, and the title Foundling Hospital was dropped.
The Hospital did not loose its connection with the Bloomsbury site for long, however. The site had been bought by a property speculator, James White, who intended to transfer Covent Garden Market there. He was forced to abandoned this plan, however, due to strong local opposition, and with the assistance of Lord Rothermere, three-quarters of the site was purchased from him to form a children's playground for the locality. This became known as Coram's Fields. The remaining quarter was re-purchased by the Foundling Hospital and became their headquarters at 40 Brunswick Square. Some of the internal fittings saved from the old Hospital buildings were transferred to the new offices, as were the Foundling art collections.
It soon became evident that the income from investing the proceeds of the sale was surplus to the requirements of the Hospital and decisions were made to broaden the work of the charity by assisting kindred voluntary organisations, most notably the Cross Road Club(a home for mothers and babies), the Foundling Site Nurseries (residential and day care centres) and Saint Leonards Nursery School. Records relating to these institutions can be found in the collection.
In 1954 the Governors, influenced by trends towards non-institutional forms of caring for children, disposed of the school at Berkhamsted (now known as Ashlyn's School), transferring it to Hertfordshire County Council, and returned children to their foster homes. It was felt that the children would benefit from a more conventional home life, attending local schools and mixing with other children. In 1953 the organisation changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, reflecting these developments. More recently the charity has been renamed Coram Family. It is still dedicated to working with deprived and disadvantaged children, providing adoption and foster care services, and promoting research into child welfare.
The collection consists of over 800 linear feet of shelving, an estimated 8 tons of paper, and over 1000 plans. Not all the records of the Foundling Hospital are kept at London Metropolitan Archives. The Coram Family has retained a number of records needed to carry on its own work. A number of twentieth Century files relating to the Berkhamsted site are held at Hertfordshire Record Office.
The completeness of the collection is particularly noteworthy. The officers of the Hospital from the very beginning were extremely meticulous in record keeping and detailed documents survive which record the lives of the children, the way in which the Hospital operated, the methods of nursing, the prescriptions of the apothecary, the reports of the inspectors, the extraordinary accounts of women's lives, and the involvement of leading figures of the day in actively supporting the charity.
The collection has been transferred to the LMA in many different stages between 1954 and 2001.Records have been arranged into the following series:
A/FH/A/01 Charter, petitions and foundation
A/FH/A/05 Agenda books and committee papers
A/FH/A/06 Secretary: General
A/FH/A/07 Secretary: Staff
A/FH/A/08 Secretary: Petitioners
A/FH/A/09 Secretary: Children, admission and discharge
A/FH/A/10 Secretary: Children, in the country
A/FH/A/11 Secretary: Children, being claimed
A/FH/A/12 Secretary: Children, apprenticeship
A/FH/A/13 Secretary: Children, other employment
A/FH/A/14 Secretary: Chapel
A/FH/A/15 Secretary: Country Hospitals' returns
A/FH/A/16 Secretary: Estate
A/FH/A/18 Apothecary/Medical department
A/FH/A/24 Porter/Lodge keeper
A/FH/A/25 Night watchman
A/FH/A/30 Scullery maids
A/FH/A/32 Infants' Headmistress
A/FH/A/33 Foster parents
A/FH/B/02 Treasurer's clerk
A/FH/B/03 Secretary: General
A/FH/B/04 Secretary: Governors
A/FH/B/05 Secretary: Committees
A/FH/B/06 Secretary: Estate
A/FH/B/07 Secretary's clerk/assistant
A/FH/B/11 Schoolmaster and storekeeper
A/FH/B/15 Domestic Economy School supervisor
A/FH/B/16 Hostel supervisor
A/FH/C SEPARATE FUNDS
A/FH/C/01 Benevolent fund
A/FH/C/02 Whatley fund
A/FH/C/03 Foundling Hospital Savings Bank
A/FH/C/04 Superannuation fund
A/FH/D COUNTRY HOSPITALS
A/FH/D/01 Ackworth, West Yorkshire
A/FH/D/02 Shrewsbury, Salop
A/FH/D/03 Westerham, Kent
A/FH/D/04 Chester, Cheshire
A/FH/E COMMISSIONS OF PAVING
A/FH/E/01 Commissioners for paving the estate of the Foundling Hospital
A/FH/E/02 Brunswick Square Committee
A/FH/E/03 Caroline and Landsdowne Place Committee
A/FH/E/04 Mecklerburgh Square Committee
A/FH/E/05 For paving estates of Thomas Harrison
A/FH/F PRIVATE PAPERS
A/FH/F/01 Treasurer, Revd. Dr S White
A/FH/F/02 Treasurer, SC Cox
A/FH/F/03 Treasurers, GB Gregory and JRB Gregory
A/FH/F/04 Governor, C Plumley
A/FH/F/05 Secretary, J Brownlow
A/FH/F/06 Secretary, WS Wintle
A/FH/F/07 Preacher, Revd. J Hewlett
A/FH/F/08 Captain L Grove
A/FH/F/09 American Loyalist Claims Commission
A/FH/F/10 CF Eley, musician
A/FH/F/11 Steward, WC Wills
A/FH/F/12 H Cooke
A/FH/F/14 Secretary, M Lievesley
A/FH/F/15 Miss Bunbury
A/FH/G TWENTIETH CENTURY DEVELOPMENTS
A/FH/G/01 Redevelopment of the Founding Site
A/FH/G/02 The Foundling Hospital School, Berkhamsted
A/FH/G/03 Nurseries and the Child Welfare Centre
A/FH/G/04 Cross Road Club
A/FH/G/05 Subject and policy files
A/FH/H LEGAL RECORDS
A/FH/H/01 Chancery Case: Attorney General v Foundling Hospital
A/FH/H/02 Out of custody documents: purchased strays
A/FH/K FAIR MINUTES
A/FH/K/01 General Court fair minutes
A/FH/K/02 General Committee fair minutes
A/FH/M/01 Documents and books collected by J Brownlow
A/FH/M/02 Miscellaneous manuscripts
A/FH/M/03 Printed material: books, pamphlets and ephemera
A/FH/M/04 Public events: royal visits, ceremonies, concerts and memorials
A/FH/Q ACKWORTH SCHOOL
A/FH/Q/01 Records stored at Ackworth
A/FH/T RELATED DOCUMENTATION
A/FH/T/01 Thomas Coram Foundation for Children
A/FH/T/02 Old Coram Association