Hogarth’s children | William Hogarth Foundling Hospital

It’s 275 years since the establishment of the Foundling Hospital.

As well as housing abandoned children, did you know it became London’s first public art gallery? Andre Paine looks back at the role of Clerkenwell’s William Hogarth and the moving story of the children he helped…

Above: Taking Leave (1868) by Emma Brownlow, daughter of former foundling and Foundling Hospital Secretary John Brownlow. He is the central, seated figure in this scene depicting foundlings preparing for apprenticeships.

The poignant story behind the Foundling Hospital is one of the few exhibitions that can make you shed a tear. The Foundling Museum, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, chronicles the history of the institution for abandoned children. The Hospital (the word then had a more general meaning) was established by Royal Charter in 1739 and had its first temporary home in Hatton Garden in 1741.


Above: William Hogarth’s 1740 portrait of founder Thomas Coram

It also became London’s first public art gallery, thanks to Smithfield-born William Hogarth, who died 250 years ago this October. And it hosted George Frideric Handel, who conducted a benefit concert in 1749 to fund the chapel. Handel’s annual concerts raised the equivalent of £500,000 in today’s money. By 1745, the Hospital had its own building near Gray’s Inn Road, following a charitable campaign by Thomas Coram, a seaman who had been horrified to see babies abandoned in the street on his return from America. But it took years to persuade society that such an institution would not encourage sexual immorality.

On the first day of admissions, it was recorded that “the expressions of the grief of the women whose children could not be admitted were scarcely more observable than those of some of the women who parted with their children”. Poverty, desertion by the father or the shame of illegitimacy meant mothers desperately wanted a good home for their child. The alternative was the workhouse. Initially, ill health was one of the few reasons not to admit a child, though a balloting system was soon introduced: a black ball meant refusal. With parliamentary funding in 1756, a staggering 14,934 children were accepted from across the country in just four years. From 1760, a petition had to be presented and far fewer were taken in.

The most poignant part of the process was the foundling token, an everyday item or piece of cloth pinned to the baby’s clothes. Babies were baptised and given new names – sometimes from famous figures such as Oliver Cromwell – so the token ensured correct identification if a parent returned to claim their child (though few did). The token system, which lasted until the early 19th century, gives an insight into Georgian life: tokens on display include engraved coins, a spyglass for the races and a ticket to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. The London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell has thousands of the Hospital’s tiny fabric tokens.

The children were fostered and returned to the Hospital, where there was a focus on physical wellbeing, religious instruction and preparation for an apprenticeship or military service (boys) or domestic service (girls). The Foundling Hospital was also a public attraction. ‘In the 19th century, it became a very fashionable place to visit “Particularly in the 19th century, it became a very fashionable place to visit,” collections manager Alison Duke tells The Post. Visitors were encouraged to make a donation, and of course the art collection established by Hogarth in the 1740s was a major draw.


As well as donating his own paintings, including a portrait of Coram, Hogarth secured the patronage of Joshua Reynolds, Francis Hayman and Thomas Hudson. The museum’s reconstruction of Hogarth’s Court Room is probably the best surviving example of an English rococo interior in London. It includes the 21-yearold Thomas Gainsborough’s Clerkenwell-inspired roundel The Charterhouse (1748). “That tradition of having creative people getting involved and giving support to the most vulnerable children in our society has continued,” says Duke.

Hogarth, who was married but childless, cared strongly about these children. He was a governor, foster parent and inspector of wet nurses, as well as the designer of the Foundling Hospital’s coat of arms and children’s uniforms. By 1801, only illegitimate children were taken and mothers had to prove they were previously ‘respectable’. By 1926, the Hospital had moved out of London. With changes in social attitudes and children’s care, it was finally closed in 1954, though the Coram children’s charity still exists.

A separate charity runs children’s park Coram’s Fields on the original site of the Foundling Hospital. Only part of the Georgian entrance and the colonnaded buildings in the forecourt remain. Fortunately, the moving story of its 25,000 foundlings is preserved at the museum just nearby in Brunswick Square.


Lost & found
Hogarth’s philanthropy endures among artists today…

Don’t be fooled by that child’s mitten on the railings outside the Foundling Museum. It’s actually a tiny bronze cast by Tracey Emin, her artistic response to the 18th century tokens. Contemporary artists have followed Hogarth’s example by supporting the Foundling Museum. Three Foundling Fellows are appointed every other year to work with vulnerable young people through art, writing and music. Tapestries by Grayson Perry, a 2010 Fellow, recently featured in an exhibition inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. Perry also created a design for a tote bag sold in the museum shop.

“Artists have been incredibly generous to us as a cultural institution, not only in agreeing to have their work displayed here but in these more practical, financial benefits as well,” says Alison Duke. Dame Jacqueline Wilson, the first Coram Foundling Fellow, wrote about a Foundling Hospital pupil in Hetty Feather. Jamila Gavin’s Coram Boy is another popular children’s book set in the institution.