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Foundling Museum

Happy Sunday everyone! Following on from my London Marathon post yesterday I spotted a Twitter link to a story about the first man to run the London Marathon with Motor Neurone Disease. This guy, Mark Maddox, is absolutely amazing, since his diagnosis with MND back in 2010 he has run the Liverpool Marathon and skydived, and today he's running in the London Marathon. GO MARK GO!

Yesterday I took advantage of the sunshine to visit the Foundling Museum near Russell Square in north London. It was Britain's first home for abandoned children, founded at a time when Britain had a high infant mortality rate and women were blamed for daring to get pregnant out of wedlock, regardless of whether or not the circumstances had included her consent.

The Foundling Museum by me!

 It was created by a man named Thomas Coram, who campaigned for a Royal Charter to create a hospital for abandoned children. He was eventually granted the Charter by King George II. A house in Hatton Garden was used as a temporary hospital when it first opened, while the proper hospital was built in Bloombury in the middle of the 1740's. The charity had several famous men as governors and supporters over the years, including the artist William Hogarth and the musician George Frederic Handel. Hogarth donated several paintings to the museum, which opened as the world's first public art gallery, while Handel allowed a concert performance of Messiah in order to help raise funds.

The hospital was given a government grant, under the condition that it would accept every infant brought to it's doors. The hospital was overwhelmed, along with women who had borne illegitimate children there were also women whose husbands had left to fight in one of England's numerous wars at the time. The men weren't paid until they came home and it often meant that they wives were left in poverty back home, they couldn't afford another mouth to feed and so placed their children under the protection of the hospital in the hopes that when their husbands returned they would be able to reclaim their children.

After 1801 the practise changed and the rules were tighter, children would be admitted if the mother showed that the father had abandoned her and that this was her only child. It was believed that if she gave up her child the mother could then "rehabilitate" herself in the eyes of society by returning to respectable employment, something that would be impossible if she had a baby to care for.
Thomas Coram's statue by me!

If you visit the museum at the moment you can visit the current exhibition in the basement, which focuses on the tokens left by the mothers of the children. These were used as a way to identify the child should the mother or father return to claim them, as part of her petition to get her child back the woman would need to describe what token she had left with it. The tokens were sealed up in the admission packets of the children, if the child was reclaimed then the packet was opened and if the mother's description matched the token then she could be reunited. I must admit it was difficult to work out which was more heartbreaking, the number of children that were never reclaimed, or the number of stories that seemed to end with the parents coming back for their child only to find it had died in the intervening years. The children themselves never knew who their parents were, their names were changed when they entered the hospital and if no one came to claim them then their records were never opened, they were never given the tokens their mothers had left them. This was probably done to give the children a "clean slate", no one would know if they were illegitimate or not, but at the same time severing all links with their past seems rather harsh in the light of the modern world.

There were some happy endings though, some mothers were married and were able to come back with their husbands to claim their child. The babies were nursed by women in the countryside before being brought into the city and some of these nurses bonded with their charges to the point where they "adopted" them (there was no formal adoption process back then). Some of the children maintained their links to the Foundling Hospital for the rest of their lives, the father of the artist Emma Brownlow was a Foundling and he became Secretary and Treasurer of the Hospital, dedicating his life's work to the running and administration of the hospital.

If you are ever near Russell Square then I would highly recommend a visit to this museum. It's a few minutes walk away from Russell Square station, entrance is £7.50 (£8.25 if you're a British taxpayer and happy to pay the GiftAid price) for adults and free for children under 16. You visit this museum and then head on over to the British Museum for a good day out!

Have a nice day everyone!


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