Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Foundling Museum

It was a grey day in London yesterday, with a splattering of rain and that temperature which is fine when you're moving but cold as soon as you stand still. But I didn't stand still. I didn't stop. I had no clear idea where I was going but I ended up here, at the Foundling Museum on Brunswick Street.

1720s London sounds a squalid place. Children were commonly left on doorsteps of churches and other buildings by parents who could not afford to keep them. Many of them died. The sight of this disgusted three childless men so much that they decided to do something about it. They were an illustrious trio: a sea captain called Thomas Coram,

the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frederick Handel.

Whereas other cities in europe had homes for foundlings, London did not. It was thought that by having a hospital for foundlings society would be seen to be condoning loose morals; because most of the children were born to unmarried mothers.

Conram faced a long campaign. It took him 17 years to establish the Hospital, but once the Hospital was started he was almost immediately ousted by a committee coup. I keep wondering what he felt about this - doing all that work and then not having much to do with his great accomplishment.

It was a secular independent charity - the first time such an institution had ever been established. One of its greatest innovations was to invite Hogarth to display his pictures there which encouraged other artists and it subsequently became the first public gallery in London. Another benefactor was Handel who donated an organ to the chapel and conducted recitals there.

The original premises are demolished now but this building, which is close to the site, has been renovated to include reconstructions of many of the original rooms including the committee room where mothers waited to see if their child would be admitted. Because demand outstripped available places the children were chosen by lottery. A while ball and the child would be admitted (if found to be healthy); a black and the child would be turned away; a red and the child had another chance.

Life in the Hospital seems to have been austere but fair. The children were sent out to wet nurses until aged about three or five (thus getting lots of the human comfort Dr Perry recommends) then admitted into the hospital again - heads shorn and uniforms issued - until they left to go into service if they were girls and into apprenticeships of the forces if boys. Not one child rose to any great eminence, but they seemed to have taken useful roles in the community.

In the exhibition on the ground floor were menus, examples of the brown and white uniforms (indicating their future professions), and verbal witness accounts of life in the orphanage - the last foundling children were admitted in the 1930s.

Upstairs were the galleries and then on the top floor a room devoted to Handel. It was this room I liked the best. It had several leather chairs with Handel's music piped into the wings. When I got there the room was empty and the blinds over the window gave the place the subdued light of evening. I chose the chair that said 'oratorios' and flicked through a few until I got to the Messiah. Then I shut my eyes and after a few minutes dozed off like an old woman. My only excuse is that I have been a bit short of sleep recently - sometimes it seems like the bottom is falling out of my world. But while I listened to the more optimistic parts of the Messiah promising a great redeemer everything else seemed to drift away and I felt anything could happen if I tried hard enough. Then I thought again of Conram, and hoped that he died happy - he had, after all accomplished what he set out to do. This, is the end, must be all that matters - the trying rather than the success, the doing of it all rather than any glory.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you see the play Coram Boy, by Jamilla Gavin (based on her book of the same name)? It was excellent, we all went and everyone really enjoyed it, though one scene was a bit gruesome if you were sitting in those cheap hard seats right at the front (of the National) as we were.

Fri May 18, 05:18:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

I hope your world's bottom remains intact dear Clare. I love the image of you sitting in that room falling asleep to Handel.
This has been a very interesting and informative read.

Sat May 19, 02:10:00 pm  
Blogger Lori Witzel said...

I'm sorry to have been such a stranger here, and this post is one such reason.

I learned new things, found a thirst to learn some more, and smiled at the thought of you snoozing (me too on sleep-time being thin, but am hopeful you'll find a way to keep that bottom in place.)

Have a peaceful, restorative weekend.

Sun May 20, 12:11:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maxine: No, I'm afraid I'd not heard of it until I came across it at the back of the guidebook (when I was looking to see if anyone had written a novel based on this - it seemed to me to be 'asking' for one...and saw that Jamilla Gavin had).

Thanks CB and Lori - the bottom seems to be in place again now, I hope!

Tue May 22, 08:20:00 am  
Blogger Marly Youmans said...

A sea captain, a composer, an artist: three people who loved and saw past the grime of an age, and who restored a bit of the world.

Isn't that what we all must do in our own marred time, after the fires from the sky and the ash rising?

Tue May 22, 05:05:00 pm  

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