About 1668, in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England, a baby was born. Unremarkable.
He lived long enough to be sent to sea. Somewhat remarkable, in an age of high infant and childhood mortality. Sadly, the fact that "long enough" was less than twelve years was not remarkable for the age.
See if you can figure out who I am talking about before I tell you.
This essay arises out of my sense of wonder when, courtesy of the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch, of London, I recently held a very special book.
I knew a bit about the subject matter of the book. Without that knowledge, perhaps my sense of wonder would not have been so deep. Eventually, you will get a chance to look at images of parts of the book. I hope you will bear with me, while I "set the scene"?
The first page became longer than I originally intended. Please at least skim through it, but however much or little of this page you read, I hope you will enjoy the selections from the book, presented in the linked next page.
I wanted to put some numbers in, here, about childhood mortality... but that proved difficult. One figure I think I can trust, for about 1700, for in what is today a part of London, is that one in four children died before they were a year old. Interestingly enough, the same paper, Infant feeding practices, social status and mortality variation, estimated that only 6 in 100 were dying in the same district in the last 75 years of the 1500s. The paper will reward the thinking reader with some food for thought, not just on the basic question, but also on how we measure such things, let alone how different the world was in 1700.
The relevance of all this talk about childhood mortality will become clear.
So... the lad is born. Is sent off to sea before he is twelve. For a time, 1694-1705, from age 28, he operated a ship building business in Taunton, in the English colony of Massachusetts... George Washington hasn't been born yet. (B. 1732) He also married during this period, in 1700. They were happily married for forty years... she lived just long enough to see his great dream start to become a reality.
I've seen nothing to suggest that the lad was born to wealth. Not bad, to establish a boat building business. It seems he "had something".
One of the things he had was compassion... in an age when "charities" hadn't been invented, and when a great deal of poverty was at the door of even the privileged. And misery, if only because of the primitive state of medicine, was all around.
He appears to have "returned" to London in 1704 (ref: 1) (Don't look at the references, yet, by the way, as they give away the man's name, which I hope you will enjoy recalling by yourself, as the clues accumulate.) Well... "returned to London" as in "that became his "base". He was still going away to sea from time to time for a while.
By 1717 he was trying to put together a "package" to equip a band of colonists to set out to Maine as a philanthropic venture. (ref: 3)(Perhaps it is as well it failed: His name for the colony would have been Georgia, which might have led to confusion later years. (George II was the British king at the time.))
In 1735 he helped get a colony for unemployed artisans in Nova Scotia by being a sponsor. (ref: 3)
I wanted to put in here a note about how by the time he started his great venture, most people of his age were dead.
But again, I couldn't find the numbers I wanted. I did find that "life expectancy", in the UK, at about the time he died was under 40. But that is "confused" by the fact that it includes the very high number of infant deaths. A more interesting number would be something like, "if you were 50 in 1718," (as he was) "what were the chances you would have another 10 years in which to do world changing things?"
(In passing: From the British Office of National Statistics: One third of babies born in 2013 are expected to reach their 100th birthday.)
Anyway... in a document from the internet, we read that "he returned to London aged 52" (ref: 2), about 1720. He would have been an "old man" by the standards of the day. I suspect 1720 is when he stopped going to sea, already having been "based" in London for maybe 15 years. (ref: 1)
As much as I enjoy watching Downton Abbey, and the rest, I wish someone would do a good historical drama which more faithfully depicts the miseries of earlier ages. I think perhaps parts of Slumdog Millionaire does a good job. But neither TV nor cinema, yet, come with smells. Thank heavens, I suppose, if you want to "visit" 1720s London.
ODNB states that it was in 1722 that he decided to take action, to try to do something for the welfare of the abandoned children which were a part of everyday life in London in those days.
He had probably heard of some institutions in Europe, for instance the famous one in Venice where Vivaldi worked as music master. (That one was founded in 1419. It's buildings, by the way, were built by no less a man than Brunelleschi (As "engineer", not "sponsor"). (It was Brunelleschi who built the dome of Florence's cathedral.)
But there was no provision, in 1720, for the care of abandoned or needy children in England. (Workhouses existed. These were more about keeping the poor off the streets, out of the way, and about giving the marginal an incentive to "man up".)
Nor were there any "charities" as we know them today.
But it was one thing to think "something must be done", and another to put that "something" in place.
We'll come back to the compassionate retired sea captain in a moment, and at the same time get to the book I saw, that evokes so powerfully aspects of the story. At the bottom of the page, there are links to images to passages from the book.
I wonder if you've guessed yet whom I am writing about.
Another man is well known for helping the first man's project succeed.
He was born, not in England, in 1685. He moved to England in 1712. He was a musician. About the time that the sea captain started work on his great project, the musician was in a period of great success, bringing to London audiences something new, which they adored.
In April 1737, at age 52, he apparently suffered a stroke which impaired his right hand, preventing him from performing. (Ref: 4) And his original "claim to popularity" with the London music audiences was beginning to be "yesterday's news". He had also had some tedious trials in the world of the business of selling musical performances to the fickle public.
The ship's captain, at this point, had been struggling, without great success, to find support for his great dream for about 15 years. In 1737, he was nearly 70.
It was not all gloom and doom for the musician, though. He had previously dabbled in another musical form, and before his stroke, something in this genre was successful with the public.
So... about 1737, we have two old men in London. Both have achievements under their belts. But neither has yet accomplished that for which they are remembered.
A great turning point for the retired sea captain was when he persuaded wife of the 6th Duke of Somerset to become his first "important" backer. She signed his petition to the King, requesting the charter which the sea captain's venture needed. Her husband ended up one of the institution's founding governors.
Once the duchess had signed, it became much easier to acquire more backers, both supporters of the petition, and people willing to subscribe funds to the venture.
The Royal Charter was issued on "the Seventeenth day of October, in the thirteenth day of (George II's) reign." (1739)
Just about the time the sea captain got his great project off the ground, the musician... aged 56 wrote another piece in the new genre... and it was suddenly immensely popular. And has remained so to this day. The composer allowed many performances to be given with the profits going to the sea captain's project. If you haven't "got it" yet, perhaps this will help? Because of the demand for tickets, ladies were encouraged to eschew hoops in their dresses, and men were asked to remove their swords.
The Royal Charter lays down that the corporation shall be known as "The Governors and Guardians of the Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of exposed and deserted young Children".
exposed and deserted young children.
By the way, don't be thinking of Twisty urchins when you see "children". All though its many years, the institution took as many children as it could manage as very young babies, having decided that this was the best use of their limited resources. Not only did taking a child very young mean an as yet mostly undamaged child, it also helped society by freeing the mother from the burden she could not handle.
Exposed and deserted... like, say, unwanted kittens? Except that, today, there are laws to punish people who dump kittens in a skip. In 1740, children (babies) were regularly "dumped". Not entirely out of pure evilness... some parents simply had no other option.
The charter goes on to give the corporation the right to receive donations... up to £4,000 per year... "for the better Support and Maintenance of such poor deserted children". It explicitly includes gifts of real estate, and gives the corporation the right to "sell, grant, demise, exchange and dispose..." of such real estate.
(Not being a lawyer of the 1700s, I'm not sure why a corporation needed "permission" to receive gifts, and use them for the benefit of orphans! But what do I know?)
The charter sets out how the executive committee is to be constituted, both as to offices and first incumbents. (Our sea captain was not one of them. The Executive Committee was more like a board of governors, or directors, in modern terms.
Much of the rest of the charter is given over to setting out required meetings, voting procedures, and the like. Including, not least, for transparent accounting of the corporation's assets. All of it accomplished in just a little over five pages of 19cm x 12cm.
Bound with the charter in the book I had the privilege of seeing was the act of Parliament which was another step towards the establishment of the institution. I believe it became law shortly after the charter was granted
It re-covers much of the ground in the charter. Here are some assorted extra bits in the legislation...
The legislation sets out the that the taxes on any property owned by the corporation may not be raised above what they were in 1739, even if the property is "improved". (E.g. a building erected on previously vacant land.)
It is explicitly laid down that the corporation shall decide how many children it can serve.
Quite a long section, with teeth, is devoted to saying that anyone may present any child to the corporation, in hopes that the corporation will take up the care of that child. And anyone whosever, but explicitly including church wardens, workhouse overseers, and people employed in connection with laws for provision for the poor or for "bastard children" who "stops, disturbes, molests" people bringing children forward shall be fined two pounds. Half of which shall go to the informer, and half to the corporation. ("What was two pounds worth?" is of course exceptionally difficult. One answer, based on the cost of retail goods was that it would be about the same as £240 in today's money.
In a darker vein, but as an example of the hard "business" sense which repeatedly shows itself: The corporation is entitled to "detain and employ" the children in "any Sort of Labour or Manufacture, or in the Sea Service" any child taken care of by the corporation, or to "bind" them as apprentices... and take all related payments for the use of the corporation... until the "child" is 24 for a "boy" or 21 or married for a "girl".
The Governors of the corporation may elect or remove officers and servants of the corporation at their discretion, without assigning cause.
If an officer or servant fails to produce accounts, papers, records, he or she can be thrown in jail, without the option of bail, until the accounts, etc are produced.
These were hard times... and the people who established the corporation weren't limp wristed liberals who hoped that everyone would be "nice".
In a moment, "the answers". Who was the sea captain? Who was the musician? What was the corporation?
The act of parliament ran to six and a half pages.
The rest of the book, a further 26 pages, gives the bylaws of the corporation, as they were approved 26 January, 1745, and the accounts to 25 March 1745, and in a further six pages, the committees and governors of the corporation at that time.
The rest of this website is given over to extracts from the bylaws, the day to day "how we run this thing" rules, with facsimiles of the text.
If you have not already solved the puzzles, does this give you sufficient extra help?...
(Please be advised... this, and other images, have been given modest digital "air brushing" to make them as attractive as possible. If Quaritch's still have this copy available, or are able to find another, caveat emptor still applies. It is up to you to examine any copy you are considering buying, if you are a collector. These images are not presented in a "for sale" context.)
The corporation is today usually referred to as "The Foundling Hospital", or "Coram's Hospital", after the sea captain, Thomas Coram. It was The First. All of our modern systems of caring for children in need stem from it. Well... that may be slightly exaggerated... But perhaps we can say that Coram's Hospital started the ENGLISH child welfare system, at least.
And that was the start of "charities" in general. The idea of a corporate entity, dedicated to some Good Cause, started with the Foundling Hospital's "corporation".
The music was Handel's Messiah.
Messiah, famously, was written in 24 days. 22 August to 14 September, 1741. It would be nice to report that the first children to be cared for by the Foundling Hospital were taken in during that short period, and in fact that was nearly true. The first children were actually taken in a little earlier that year, on 25 March. The "Hospital" (the building) had not yet been built, but the "Hospital" (the charity) rented premises so that the childcare could begin even as the hospital building was being designed and built.
The term "hospital", in those days, was more about "a place of hospitality" that about a place where specialized medical care was on offer.
This link will take you to the first of several pages with images from the 1745 bylaws of Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital.
Ref 1: Article on Thomas Coram, by James Stephen Taylor, "Coram, Thomas (c.1668-1751)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, Oct 2006
Ref 2: Thomas Coram Foundation- A brief history of the Foundation, http://www.thomascoram.camden.sch.uk/PDF Information/school_history.pdf, accessed 09 June 2015
Ref 3: Wikipedia on Thomas Coram, accessed 9 June 2015.
Ref 4: Wikipedia on George Frideric Handel, accessed 9 June 2015.
Ref 5: Wikipedia on Charles Seymour, 6th Duke of Somerset, accessed 9 June 2015.
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