The Foundling Museum - History and Facts | History Hit

The Foundling Museum

London, England, United Kingdom

The Foundling Museum tells the story of the famous orphanage which once stood on the site as well as holding an important art collection of works donated to it.

Amy Irvine

07 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About The Foundling Museum

Located on the site of London’s first home for abandoned children, the Foundling Museum tells the story of this institution and explores the history of the children who lived here.

History of The Foundling Museum

The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for babies at risk of abandonment. London had high levels of poverty and parents who were unable to care for their babies due to poverty or illegitimacy had few options. Many chose to abandon them in the street – with an estimated 1,000 babies a year abandoned in London. Practical action was needed.

After 17 years of tireless campaigning, Thomas Coram received a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739, which enabled him to set up his Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity in Bloomsbury, London.

Artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel both helped establish the Hospital as one of London’s most fashionable venues. Hogarth encouraged leading artists to donate work which helped establish the UK’s first public art gallery, and Handel donated an organ and conducted annual benefit concerts in the chapel – setting a template for ways the arts can support philanthropy.

In the early 1920s, a decision was made to relocate the hospital to a purpose-built facility in Berkhamstead due to London’s expansion and pollution, and the original building was torn down. The Thomas Coram Foundation built a new headquarters at 40 Brunswick Square between 1935-1937, on the site of the Foundling Hospital, incorporating many architectural features from the original 18th century building.

Since the first babies were admitted in 1741, to 1954 when its last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated around 25,000 children.

The Foundling Museum was established as a separate charitable organisation in 1998, and opened in 2004 following refurbishment.

The Foundling Museum today

As well as collections, artefacts and photos looking at the stories of the children themselves, the Foundling Museum also contains an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and prints, donated by the many artists who were patrons of the institution.

In addition to Hogarth’s paintings, works found in the museum’s two collections (the Foundling Hospital Collection and the Foundling Museum Collection) include those from artists Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Francis Hayman, Joseph Highmore, Thomas Hudson, Allan Ramsay and John Michael Rysbrack.

Among the most poignant of the museum collections is actually that of the foundling tokens. Upon the admission of a child, mothers would pin tokens (often everyday objects, such as buttons) so that their children would be recognised as their own if the mothers ever went to pick them up – sadly few did. While the practice of admitting children with tokens ceased in the late 19th century following a more sophisticated system of admission (such as issuing the mothers with receipts), a large collection of these original tokens can still be viewed.

The Museum also holds a number of events and talks throughout the year. The Foundling Hospital itself continues today as the children’s charity Coram.

Getting to The Foundling Museum

The Museum is less than 5 minutes’ walk from Russell Square underground station, and King’s Cross St Pancras and Euston stations are approximately 10 minutes’ walk. The nearest buses are the 7, 59, 68, 91, 98, 168 and 188 from Russell Square Station.

The Museum is approximately 30 minutes’ walk from Charing Cross, 45 minutes’ walk from Liverpool Street Station, 40 minutes’ from Waterloo Station, and around an hour from Victoria and Paddington Stations.

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