Not far from the British Museum is the Foundling Hospital in Guilford Street. One hears of it vaguely as an orphan asylum where the children wear quaint costumes that may be seen at the service in the chapel on Sunday mornings, when the singing attracts many visitors.
But there are more reasons than that to take you to this corner off the beaten track of the West End. For one thing, it may not be there very long. Already there are rumours that the Foundling Hospital may be moved to the country and one more link with eighteenthcentury London be snapped.
Institutions as a rule are about as dull to see as to live in, but the Foundling Hospital is an exception. Handel, Hogarth and Dickens all gave tangible proof that they loved the place, and people from all over the world come to see it, attracted either by the reputation of the choir, the fame of the pictures in the museum, or the pathetic interest of the children, who indeed look merry, healthy little creatures.
Its story is almost too well known to need repetition: A seventeenth-century sea-captain, living during the latter half of his life in Rotherhithe, was distressed by the sight of deserted children he saw on his way to and from the city. It took good Captain Thomas Coram seventeen years of hard work to turn his dream of a well-endowed hospital for deserted children into a reality, but in 1739 he got a royal charter and a house was opened for them in Hatton Garden. The Foundling Hospital, as we know it, was begun in 1742.
Hogarth has painted a wonderful portrait of the founder, and looking at the cheerful benevolent face one can understand why he wrote, ” The portrait I painted with the utmost pleasure and in which I particularly wished to excel was that of Captain Coram for the Foundling Hospital.” The kindly eyes that Hogarth drew were forever seeing something to be done for his fellow men, for the Foundling Hospital was only one of the old sea-captain’s philanthropies, to which he literally gave away all he had. In his old age, when he was asked if he would mind accepting a pension collected from his friends, he said quite simply, ” I have not wasted the little wealth of which I was formerly possessed in self-indulgence or vain expenses, and am not ashamed to confess that in this my old age I am poor.” He accepted a pension of a little more than £100, and is buried in the vaults under the Foundling Hospital Chapel. That is the story of Thomas Coram, whose statue is at the entrance gate and whose name is remembered in Great Coram Street and Little Coram Street.
The best time to see the hospital is at the Sunday morning service at eleven o’clock, and the easiest way to reach it is by the tube to Russell Square. Turn to the right on leaving the tube and walk down Grenville Street and Guilford Street, and the Foundling Hospital will be seen to the left.
Go up to the gallery if you want to see the children seated on each side of the organ, dressed in the quaint costume that has never altered since it was decreed by the founder.
Dickens, who loved the hospital and had a seat in the chapel during the ten years he lived in Bloomsbury, makes Mrs. Meagles say in Little Dorrit :
Oh, dear, dear, . . when I saw all those children ranged tier above tier, and appealing from the father none of them has ever known on earth, to the great Father of us all in Heaven, I thought, does any wretched mother ever come here, and look among those young faces, wondering which is the poor child she brought into this forlorn world.
But the rules of the Foundling Hospital have changed since Thomas Coram’s time. Only the children of known mothers are now received, and if later in life the mother marries and can prove that she is able to support her child, she can claim it again. The children are never allowed to be adopted. They are sent to foster-mothers in the country when first received, and only come to the hospital when they are six. The girls with few exceptions are trained for domestic service and the boys as regimental bandsmen, if they show talent, or they are apprenticed to different trades when they are fourteen.
There is something infinitely touching in the sight of these rows of small creatures, chanting with their trained treble voices, ” Let me never be confounded,” when life had confounded them at its very gates. But seeing them later on, as every Sunday morning visitor is allowed to do, happily eating their dinners in their pleasant rooms, it is obvious that the life of the little brown-coated boy or white-capped girl in Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital has many things in its favour. One may compare their lot with that of more sophisticated children in the London slums, for whom it is necessary to have a society for their protection from the parents who have ill-treated over 100,000 in England in the last year.
One does not ordinarily associate a foundling hospital with the fine arts, but, as I said before, this is an exception. Hogarth not only painted the founder’s portrait and one or two other pictures that he gave to the hospital, but he persuaded his friends to do likewise. Sir Joshua Reynolds gave a portrait of Lord Dartmouth, Gainsborough a view of Charterhouse, Kneller a portrait of Handel, and the exhibition of these gifts, including a beautiful cartoon of Raphael’s Massacre of the Innocents, was a forerunner of the exhibitions of the Royal Academy. The pictures alone are worth going to Guilford Street to see. Some of them are in the picture gallery with the cases holding tokens that in the old days before 1760 used to be left to identify the foundling. In the board-room, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful rooms in London, hangs Hogarth’s March to Finchley, of which I believe there is a copy in the ugly ” Adam and Eve ” public-house, built on the site of the ” Adam and Eve ” Inn of the picture, at the corner of the Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road.
The tale of how the hospital came to get the picture is rather quaint. Hogarth painted soldiers marching to Finchley in a state that their French confreres would call ” debrailles.” He then asked George II. to buy it, but that monarch-the last English king to go into battle-was so enraged at this presentation of his soldiers, that he indignantly refused, and Hogarth, not being able to dispose of the picture elsewhere, issued lottery tickets for it. About sixty tickets were left on his hands, so he gave them to his favourite hospital, which won the picture, and there it is today.
The careful training of the child choir, and the choice of a musical career for the boys whenever possible, is only carrying on one of the earliest traditions, for Handel rivalled Hogarth in. his interest and his gifts to the Foundling Hospital. He used to conduct performances of the Messiah in the chapel to crowded audiences, and as he induced the performers to give their services, the proceeds that he handed over sometimes amounted to nearly £1,ooo. In a glass case is carefully preserved the gift the great master bestowed on the hospital of the MS. of his oratorio, and near by is the autograph copy of the number of Good Words containing the story Dickens wrote about the Foundling Hospital.
In the secretary’s room is a fine old Jacobean oak table but lately retrieved from the kitchen premises where it had been in use for centuries.