Charles Dickens & the Foundling Hospital – a guest blog post from Gemma Colgan at the Foundling Museum
April 13, 2012
The Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first home for abandoned children opened 73 years before Charles Dickens was born. A fashionable charity in the 18th century the Hospital was set in the leafy Holborn and Bloomsbury district. By the time Dickens became a fan it was a firmly established institute that took in babies from all over England. Unlike the appalling workhouses of the period, the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739, was for the “Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children.” Dickens took out a lease on a property in Doughty Street, next to the Foundling Hospital estate between 1837 and 1839 and would have been very familiar with the sights and sounds that echoed beyond the Hospital’s gates, such as the trumpeting that summoned the boys to the playground for military exercises or the young choir singing the Foundling Hospital Anthem, composed for the children a century earlier by George Frideric Handel.
Dickens also rented a pew in the chapel until 1839. Throughout his novels and stories he refers to the Hospital several times, particularly in Little Dorrit, where the character of Tatty Coram is a former Foundling. It is tempting to draw parallels between the Foundling Hospital story and Oliver Twist, which was completed by Dickens whilst living on Doughty Street. The realism that Dickens writes about in Oliver Twist is all too evident in the circumstances that led women to the Foundling Hospital. Not only was a foundling a perceived sin, he or she was also evidence of female promiscuity, destroying a woman’s respectable character. The idealised character of Oliver who is born into poverty and misfortune is eventually saved by Mr Brownlow, a character who shared the same name as the then secretary of the Foundling Hospital, John Brownlow, believed to be the male figure depicted in the painting The Foundling Restored to its Mother.
In The Foundling Restored to its Mother by Emma Brownlow King, a receipt is the focal point of the painting. Such a receipt is also central to Dickens’ most detailed description of the Foundling Hospital in his famous 1853 article Received, a Blank Child published in his journal Household Words. On leaving their babies at the Foundling Hospital, mothers were given a receipt if they were to ever fall on better times and reclaim their child. Dickens focuses on how the anonymity of each child disappeared on entrance to the Hospital and, as a ‘blank child’ was absorbed into the larger social body of the Foundling Hospital.
Dickens continued to support the Hospital after he moved from Doughty Street and he provides a very supportive conclusion in Received, a Blank Child, explaining the hospital to be “rich, and it is likely enough that it has its blemishes… But from what we have seen from this establishment we have derived much satisfaction, and the good that is in it seems to us to have grown with its growth.” Saving over 25,000 children, the Foundling Hospital continued to operate until 1954.
Today the Foundling Museum tells the story of the thousands of children brought up in the Foundling Hospital which was also London’s first public art gallery. Housing significant collections of 18th century art, interiors, social history and music, the Museum continues the work and celebrates the vision of Foundling Hospital founder Thomas Coram, artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.
The Museum’s very own modern day Dickens is children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson. Jacqueline, awarded a Coram Fellowship in 2008, is currently working on a third story that follows the adventures of a Victorian foundling who grew up in the Foundling Hospital, Hetty Feather. Its recent sequel, Sapphire Battersea, follows the twists and turns of Hetty’s adventures as she leaves the Foundling Hospital. Jacqueline’s stories celebrate the dynamic relationship that can exist between the arts, child welfare and philanthropy.
The Foundling Museum is currently working with the Charles Dickens Museum on a project that will begin at the end of April. As a way of highlighting Dickens’ relationship to the Foundling Hospital, a range of people with a relationship to Dickens have been asked to select items from the Charles Dickens Museum, and place them in dialogue with a work or object in the Foundling Museum. Selectors include actress Gillian Anderson, Camden Councillor Tulip Siddiq, journalist and presenter Jon Snow and Dickens family member, Mark Dickens.