Thomas Coram – self-made man and philanthropist

Listed on January 27, 2015 in Blogs!

On Sunday we enjoyed a brilliant lecture from Lars Tharp on London’s Foundling Hospital. It was not a hospital in the medical sense but a place of refuge, care and sustenance – as in the origins of the word hospitality. It was built to take in as many young children – babies really – as could be afforded. The majority of children were not admitted simply because there was no room and their fate is unrecorded. In many respects it was a harrowing tale. The inspirational part of the story came from its inception. Thomas Coram was its instigator and he originally came from Lyme Regis before making his way as a shipwright in Taunton, not Somerset but Massachusetts. He returned to this country, developed a mercantile business in London before working for years raising awareness and funds from the great ladies of society – aristocrats and their friends. William Hogarth was also enlisted, some would say out of self-interest, but also out of a social conscience too. The third great man brought on board was George Frederick Handel – composer, musical entrepreneur and very well-connected too. Between them the hospital was founded first in Hatton Garden and then just north of Holborn in what is called today Coram’s Fields. Thomas Coram, William Hogarth nor Handel had children other than those they helped. Of course, it wasn’t plain sailing at all and many children did not survive childhood but at least they had a fighting chance.

The Georgian period is often portrayed as an elegant time – Baroque music, wigs, gowns and town houses, but the reality for most people was very different. Crime and disease was rife. Justice was punitive and living conditions were horrendous. There was no social security and charity was your only safety net. Life expectancy was short for most. Coram and his friends made a difference but their work was a drop in the ocean although it was start and a shining exemplar of what could be achieved.

In our age of relative comfort and longevity it is good to remind ourselves as to how different our present is today. That said, Lars reminded us that Coram’s time was not so far past – fewer than ten generations. For some it is also is a reality today. Not so far away – a few hours by plane – the plight of children remains desperate. It’s not their fault that they were born into a conflict-riven place like Syria, Afghanistan, Libya or Somalia. In thinking about Thomas Coram, surely it is right that our charity should extend beyond home to those in need where ever they are.