When Thomas Coram, the founder of the Foundling Hospital, returned to London in 1704 after 11 years in America, it was to a city that was a powerhouse of industry, invention, global trade and wealth. It was also noisy, disease-ridden, polluted and the site of desperate poverty. The city’s population was increasing rapidly, growing from an estimated 600,000 in 1700 to around a million by the end of the century. London’s relentless expansion was fuelled by rural migration. However, removed from the moral and social support of their communities, many people fell into destitution and crime. Those who couldn’t work were reliant on the Poor Law system of parish relief or, from 1722, the workhouse.
The situation for children was particularly bleak. In the early 1700s the mortality rate for the under fives was around 75%; in the workhouses it was over 90%. Parents who were unable to care for their babies due to poverty or illegitimacy had few options, and many chose to abandon them in the street, outside churches and even on rubbish heaps. It is estimated that around a thousand babies a year were abandoned in London. It is this situation that fuelled Thomas Coram to campaign relentlessly for 17 years to set up his Foundling Hospital to care for these babies at risk of abandonment.
Amongst the early supporters of the Hospital were 21 Ladies from the highest ranks of society – the subject of our forthcoming exhibition - who put their name to a petition to the King in support of Coram’s campaign. However, despite their place in society these women were not spared child loss as research by Elizabeth Einberg has uncovered. Sarah, the Duchess of Richmond (1706-1751) endured 23 pregnancies from which only 12 children survived. Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), referred to her 7 children, of whom 4 died tragically young, as her ‘little jewels’. Dorothy, Countess of Burlington (1699-1758), tragically lost 2 children – her son in 1729 and daughter in 1730, only to then suffer a miscarriage in the same year. Anne, Countess of Albemarle (1703-1787) had 15 children of whom only 6 survived into adulthood.
The support of these pioneering women was crucial in overcoming moral concerns about Coram’s project. The public at large needed to be convinced that the project partook of the feminine virtue of compassion and the moral decorum of protecting innocents. In respectable public opinion, the idea of an establishment that cared for abandoned children was tantamount to condoning female depravity and vice. To overcome this view, Coram could see that securing the approval of a group of right-thinking women, of wives and dowagers at the pinnacle of society, would highlight the Christian, virtuous and humanitarian aspects of such an endeavour and make it socially acceptable. In the event, the Foundling Hospital became not only that, but one of the most fashionable charities of the day.
Ladies of Quality & Distinction opens to the public on 21 September. More information on the Ladies can be found in the exhibition guide, free with Museum admission. For opening times and admission prices visit foundlingmuseum.org.uk