Popping Up at the Foundling Museum: thinking about left behind children

A still from Coram Boy, as played on Broadway. More pics here
I read Coram Boy by Jamila Gavin many years ago: the story of an age when single motherhood and children born out of wedlock created such a stigma that abandoned babies were a common feature of the London streets. More about Coram Boy in this Reading Matters review.

Thomas Coram, a retired ship captain, was so upset by the sight of uncared for children that he spent his lifetime trying to find a way to rescue them.

The result was the Foundling Hospital, built in 1739. Read a quick history

Being of a very soft, indeed, mushy disposition, I was slightly apprehensive coming to the Foundling Museum for my event for the Pop Up Festival of Stories.

I had found the play version of Coram Boy utterly heartbreaking.

There's a scene with a forest of trees and a howling begins. And the light changes and one by one the trees are revealed as mothers crying for their lost babies. I took some fairly edgy teenagers along to watch the play and when the lights came up there was not a dry-eyed teenager in my row.

A row of school shirts greets you at the entrance to the main exhibit. I was ready to howl right there. 
I was supposed to give a talk to a group of Year Six children from City of London Academy and I was slightly concerned that my usual Tall Story presentation about volcanoes and giants did not connect too well with the setting.

Luckily, I arrived early enough to wander around the exhibition before the children came.

Gulp! A nightie worn by one of the babies who lived in the Foundling Hospital
Love tokens that were left by mothers with their babies.
Although many of these were kept in archives it was
hospital policy not to show them to the children in
order to preserve the mother's anonymity.
I thought I would find nothing in Tall Story to connect with the exhibition - but I'd forgotten that my main character was himself a left behind child.

My eight foot tall character, Bernardo,
is a left behind child! How could I forget that?
Art by Sarah McIntyre

Bernardo's mother takes a job as a nurse in England thinking she can easily send for him later. But it takes sixteen years of bungled paperwork to get his visa.

Annette McCartney, learning and access manager of the Museum, was on her feet for  three hours  taking the children around the museum

How could I forget that much of my journalism here in England has been about Filipino migrant workers - women who leave their children behind in the Philippines for the sake of a better wage abroad as cleaners, maids, and other menial professions?

I had also completely forgotten that I'd written and presented a Radio 4 documentary five years ago titled 'Motherless Nation' - about the children left behind by the migration phenomenon in the Philippines.

The children's solemn faces reflect how how heart-rending some of the stories were. 
So when it came time to talk to the children, I skimmed through my usual talk and delved into my memory banks for the stories of very real people that I'd met ...

... about the mother who, on the night before she left to work in Hong Kong, pinned up homework schedules for her children

... about the families who only ever saw each other via Skype, and how the little ones hugged the computer screens as if they were hugging their mums

... about the cleaner who regularly shipped groceries from London to her kids in Manila - because when she shopped for groceries, it felt like she was really mothering them.

The Court Room - this is where the hospital Governors decided which babies to take and which to reject. When the old hospital was demolished this room was preserved and then rebuilt in the building where the museum is now housed. Many of the works of art were donated by wealthy patrons.

The Court Room., The Foundling Hospital

Using real case archives, children re-enact a selection scene. The rest of the class play the governors and must choose which baby to accept knowing that the baby rejected is likely to die. 
This boy (in tricorn) is playing the widowed father of a six week old baby
with other young children at home.
Later, they learn that the foundlings had to do their own laundry using
huge bars of smelly carbolic soap. Here, a boy smells a sample of the soap.
The foundlings rubbed dirty clothes against
these washing boards. The school children
run knuckles over the board to see how it feels.
This boy tries out a washing dolly which
children manipulated in large tubs of

One of the shocking facts that Annette revealed was that
wealthy ladies  used to pay to watch the drama of governors
interviewing the unfortunate mothers. They also
took their children to watch the foundlings
eat their meals (which were conducted in total silence).
Sounds barbaric but doesn't it sound like X Factor-type entertainment?

A list of Foundling names. The children were renamed by the governors as soon as they were accepted into the  hospital. 
Sometimes they ran out of ideas, as in the case of Sam Foundling.

Sometimes they were feeling creative (and rather cruel), as in the case of Hopegood Helpless 

Illustrations by hospital patron William Hogarth reveal the terrible conditions of the time, magnifying lenses on the display emphasize the plight of children.

Maria Connolly, Development Manager of the Pop Up Festival of Stories came along for the event. She also volunteers at the Foundling Museum. Maria helped transcribe the interviews for Foundling Voices.

There was a new exhibition documenting the stories of foundlings, now very old, in recordings. I didn't have time to explore this bit of the museum and was pleased to discover there was a website devoted to the recordings - Foundling Voices Online.

I was struck by the story of Ruth, sent to a foundling hospital as a five year old in 1942, who recalls fantasizing about mothers:

As children we always played out this game of who our mothers were and they were always beautiful, important . . . they weren't ever ordinary people. Listen to Ruth's story

This was an evocative, sometimes painful, visit to times long gone by.

But much of it still resonated with me. That was London of the 1800s, but children are still being left behind all over the world - children of immigration, of refugees, children in all kinds of situations.

I hope there are still Thomas Corams in the world to rescue them.

Thank you to Annette McCartney and her helpers at the Foundling Museum, Maria Connolly and the organizers of the Pop Up Festival of Stories, and the librarian, teachers and children of City of London Academy for such a lovely and thoughtful day!

Here is a slideshow of my photos :

If you can't see the slideshow, view it here