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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

The Santa Claus of the 18th Century

Inside The Foundling Museum, in London's Bloomsbury, hangs Hogarth's magnificent portrait of a generous-hearted man who should be far better known.

Thomas Coram, a sea captain, on his retirement to London in the first quarter of the 18th century, was horrified that babies were abandoned to die on the dung heaps of the city's streets. The Catholic Continent had convents which accepted foundlings, but there were none of those in Protestant England. A man of action, Coram devoted his retirement to raising enough capital for a refuge for infants whose desperate mothers were unable, through want or the social disgrace associated with unmarried motherhood, to care for them. It took this mild-looking man an amazing seventeen years to make his dream a reality but, finally in 1741, London's Foundling Hospital opened its doors.

Today, The Foundling Museum has on display the well-thumbed notebook, in which he recorded the sums - large and small - that he persuaded citizens of London to part with. The Museum also holds poignant examples of the coins or scraps of ribbon or lace left as tokens by desperate mothers in the hope they might, one day, be able to reclaim their precious child. It was one of these, a pink square of fabric embroidered with my own initials, that moved me to write my novel, The Servant. The embroidery is exquisite, the fabric looks like silk, and the woman who created it was clearly literate. What was her story? We will never know.

I like to think it was Coram's wife - herself childless - who suggested to him that he stop his fruitless attempts to raise enough money from the city fathers and powerful male aristocrats, and instead approach their wives. For it was the signatures of the Duchess of Somerset and other high society women on The Ladies Petition presented to George III in 1735 that finally made Coram's dream a reality. I am also tempted to wonder whether the consciences of those ladies had been pricked by awareness of sins committed by their own sons and husbands.

When the Museum is properly open again, next year, I hope those who live within reach of London will make a visit. The stories of so many betrayed women are poignant, but an important part of our history.

Thomas Coram is recorded as sitting in the garden of the Foundling Hospital, in his scarlet coat, handing out gingerbread men to the children. The Santa Claus of his age.


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