Thursday, January 18, 2007

9 February: Boreham on Thomas Coram

A Sailor's Philanthropy
Nothing in the nature of romance appears to underlie the announcement contained in the latest English newspapers to the effect that the children of the Foundling Hospital have now taken possession of their new home at Ashlyns, Berhampstead.[1] In point of fact, however, one of the most affecting stories in the annals of the Empire—a story that may almost be classified as an epic—is revived by that apparently prosaic item of intelligence. It is nearly 200 years since the Foundling Hospital was founded, and the record of its establishment is one that history—too intent on the clash of armies, the amours of kings and the squabbles of statesmen—cannot afford to forget.

One of the adornments of the new institutions at Berkhampstead is the noble statue of Capt. Thomas Coram which, standing beside the old hospital at Bloomsbury, was for many years one of the landmarks of London. Having been born in the days in which Sir Christopher Wren was laying his plans for repairing the havoc wrought by the Great Fire, and possessing no social or educational advantages of any kind, Thomas Coram became an ordinary seaman. He rose to the rank of a merchant captain, and afterwards did a work for England, and for humanity with which the achievements of few men, much more highly gifted, can for a moment compare. In his plain, blunt way, he set himself, in the course of his roving life, to confer upon his fellows every benefit that he had in his power to give them. He contrived to touch life at an extraordinary number of vital points. To this day his name is honoured in Georgia and in Nova Scotia as one of the prime movers in the establishment of those important settlements. For a few years he made his home at Taunton, Massachusetts, labouring there as a shipwright, and before he left, although his business was a particularly modest one, he presented the local authorities with 60 acres of land on which to erect a church and a schoolhouse, while the first library that the town ever possessed was also the captain's gift. All through his long and adventurous life, he showed remarkable ingenuity in discovering avenues of useful service to mankind; but all these earlier and preparatory ventures were eventually put to shame by the historic enterprise to which he applied his powers in his later days.

When Life Was Cheap
When the old captain felt that the time had come to leave a seafaring life to younger men, he settled down quietly at Rotherhithe on the Thames-side. It is a favourite haunt of old sailors; they are under the shadow of St. Paul's, in touch with the hub of the universe on the one hand and with ships and seamen on the other. In taking his morning stroll in this riverside resort however, the retired mariner made a discovery that sickened and appalled him. He seldom returned to his rooms for his midday meal without having seen lying in the gutter, one or more babies that, unwanted and unwelcome, had been disposed of in this crude and heartless way. Some of them were alive and in excellent condition; some of them were emaciated and at their last gasp; some of them were already dead. He deplored the inhumanity of this common-place spectacle and he realised the pitiful waste that it represented. Others, thousands of them, had grieved over the evil, even as he did. Some of them had upraised their voices in protest; but nothing had been done to remedy it. The sorrow of Thomas Coram differed from the sorrow that had so often been expressed inasmuch as, with hard sailor-sense, he decided that the abominable practice must be stopped and its ravages overtaken. He at first attempted to heal, as far as possible, this open sore by taking one or two of the most promising of the children into his own care and by inducing other men and women to follow his excellent example. But it soon became obvious that so immense a malady could not be cured by so meagre remedy, and Capt. Coram decided that the time had come to awaken a public conscience. The matter was of national importance; he would endeavour to stir the nation to solicitude and activity. He petitioned Parliament to prevent the frequent murders of poor, miserable children at their birth, and to suppress the human custom of exposing new-born infants to perish in the streets. It is to the credit of British people that, when a need is brought under their notice, sympathies are swiftly stirred and practical assistance is cheerfully given. In 1739, to Capt. Coram's delight, the Foundling Hospital of London was incorporated by Royal Charter "for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children." But if the good captain imagined that, with this important step, all his problems had been solved, he was doomed to a bitter and violent disillusionment.

Battalions Of Babies
He soon discovered, to his dismay, that he had only abolished one evil to make room for another. In his "Eighteenth Century Vignettes," Mr. Austin Dobson has tellingly depicted the embarrassment of the founder of the hospital as soon as its doors were for the first time opened. As soon as the existence of the institution became known, babies poured in from every corner of the kingdom. It became a lucrative trade, Mr. Dobson says, for carriers to convey infants from remote villages and hamlets to Capt. Coram's hospital. Once a waggon brought eight to town on one trip, seven of whom were dead when they reached their destination. On another occasion a man with five babies in baskets got drunk on the road and three of his little charges were suffocated. Many of the babies were sent anonymously; on some of them distinguishing marks had been placed by the parent. These marks often consisted of coins, trinkets, pieces of cotton or ribbon, or doggerel verses scrawled on scraps of paper. In a register kept at the hospital, a description of the clothes—if any—was carefully entered. One of these records reads: "Paper on the breast: clout on the head." The inevitable outcome of all this was that the governors of the hospital found themselves utterly unable to maintain the battalions of babies that swooped down upon them from all points of the compass. They accordingly applied to Parliament for help, and Parliament voted them 10,000 pounds, but in making the grant Parliament still further disconcerted them by stipulating that they must receive all-comers. A basket was hung at the gateway in Guilford St., on the spot that was afterwards occupied by the famous statue of Capt. Coram, and, on the very first day of the appearance of this basket 117 babies were placed in it! In less than four years 15,000 children were forwarded to the hospital, and the record grimly adds that "a vile trade grew up among vagrants of undertaking to carry children from the country to the hospital, an undertaking which was seldom performed, or performed only with great cruelty." In the early years of the hospital’s existence, it was only possible to coax one child in every four into surviving the injuries and handicaps that had marked its condition when admitted.

Golden Links
In addition to the celebrated statue of its founder, the hospital carries into its new environment at Berkhampstead many interesting links with these early days. It still possesses, for example, the organ presented to the institution by Handel in 1750, an instrument on which the great composer himself often played. Handel was very much in love with the work that Capt. Coram was doing. In the beautiful chapel which Jacobson added to the hospital in 1747, Handel formed a choir of blind inmates who frequently rendered "The Messiah" under the composer's personal direction. And when, in 1759, Handel died, he bequeathed to the hospital a manuscript copy of his greatest oratorio. The other day, as the children assembled for the first time in their new home at Berkhampstead, selections were played from Handel's "Messiah" on Handel's organ.

The new buildings also contain Hogarth's fine painting of Capt. Coram—a canvas from which, as Mr. Dobson says, "the ruddy, kindly face of the brave old mariner, with its curling white hair, still beams on us." Hogarth, like many of the most eminent painters of his time, was lost in admiration of the unselfish and constructive work of Capt. Coram. For some years the nation's most brilliant artists arranged an annual exhibition of their pictures at the hospital; and this exhibition led, in 1768, to the formation of the Royal Academy.

At so many points does the sturdy personality of the old sea-captain weave itself into our national story! In the middle of the Eighteenth Century, men and women of all ranks of society vied with each other in acknowledging the incalculable debt that the nation owed to Capt. Coram, and the transfer of the hospital from Bloomsbury to Berkhampstead provides the present generation with a fitting opportunity of recognising the perennial value of the heroic work that he inaugurated exactly two centuries ago.

F W Boreham

Image: Thomas Coram

[1] This editorial appears in the Hobart Mercury on February 19, 1938. The 9th of February marks the anniversary of Coram's death.

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