Words Matthew Ross
Illustrations Sophie Pellisser
Stroll past the tall white walls at the north side of Guilford Place and you might hear the innocent racket of children at play coming from Coram Fields, the protected children’s park and playground. Two centuries ago, you might have heard a different strain: from an imposing Georgian edifice, the swell of an organ and children trebling the remorseful hymn: Left on the world’s bleak waste forlorn; In sin conceiv’d, to sorrow born; By guilt and shame foredoomed to share; No mother’s love, no father’s care.
The voices were those of children given up by their mothers out of poverty, destitution or shame; the building was the legacy of sea captain and philanthropist Thomas Coram. Distressed at the plight of Georgian London’s countless abandoned infants, Coram created the Foundling Hospital to save as many of them as he could. From its completion in 1747 until its demolition in 1926, the Hospital took in thousands of foundlings. It renamed, nursed and fed them, and through a disciplined, wholesome upbringing gave them best chance they had to make a respectable way in the world.
The grand building is long gone, its history enshrined in the Foundling Museum to the north of the old Hospital’s site. But as you thumb the pages of your Bloomsbury Journal over a quiet pint in The Lamb or emerge from Bon Vivant after a working brunch, the walls around you vibrate with foundling histories. Scroll back to 1750, and the land north of Guilford Place was open field and pasture, where the thwack of willow on leather or the dying cry of shot snipe might be heard. Come 1789, the Foundling Hospital’s governors voted to let its land holdings on building leases to provide the Hospital with income. They set out the street pattern of a tract of Bloomsbury now bounded by Tavistock Place to the North and Guilford Place to the South. Georgian London’s mastermind builders, Thomas Cubitt and James Burton, bought the bulk of the leases. And so, for 200 years, the bricks and mortar that still stand today kept the Hospital’s young wards fed and nourished.
The governors assembled weekly to approve the Hospital’s expenses. Page on stiff, faded page of their archived minutes detail the coming and going of tradesmen and their bills. Douglas for Bread, Hilson for Pease, Flaxman for Butter, McTaggart for Rice. The loops and ligatures of a secretary’s hand tell of the porridge and plum pudding set before generations of children in the Hospital’s silent dining hall.
Curator Dr Jane Levi passed countless quiet hours tracing the Hospital’s food history though these archives for the Museum’s Feeding the 400 exhibition. “It was so moving to turn the pages of those faded leather-bound books and discover the great pains these eminent gentlemen took for the children; that their food should be nutritious, and that they should like it.”
The distinguished governors also decreed that this new corner of Bloomsbury was to be respectable: residences for gentlemen like them and no common, noisome trade. Behind Burton’s handsome new facades on Guildford Street lived lawyers, surgeons and clergymen, the Hospital’s governors, the surveyors of its estates, its physicians and preachers. Scores of foundling girls spent their teenage nights in servants’ rooms behind the same facades, since most were apprenticed at sixteen to domestic service, many surely to Bloomsbury’s better households.
But even gentlemen cannot live by cash alone, and soon traders inveigled themselves into the new town’s streets. The governors read complaints of sheep, lambs and calves driven for butchery into premises in Compton Mews; in Hunter Street, a certain Mr Cartwright and his poor family were assailed by the smell of warm blood rising from this unlicensed slaughterhouse. The oldest trade of all brought silken vice to the doorsteps of Hunter Street and the grand Mecklenburgh and Brunswick Squares. More upright tenants petitioned the Hospital to turn their premises into butchers, bakers, cheesemongers and public houses. Gradually the governors began to acquiesce.
Lest all the new town go to the dogs, some streets were to remain residential, but Marchmont and Kenton streets would now be for shopping. Milliners, chemists and coal merchants moved in, and so began the ever-shifting microcosm of northern Bloomsbury’s enterprise that still thrives today. The Marquis of Cornwallis started loosening the tongues of liquorous traders in 1804. Balfour the bakers laid claim, one cold January day in 1900, to houses that for years still bore their old tenant’s name in their new guise as a bistro. Their rents trickled back to the Hospital’s lease books and onwards to the Flaxmans, Hilsons and McTaggarts whose foodstuffs fed the foundlings behind proprietous walls.
Enterprise is far from the only cloth to carry the silver thread of foundling history. How many matrons, apothecaries and gardeners of the Hospital entered its gates at Guilford Place? How many foundlings were chaperoned to the houses of Bloomsbury gentlefolk to entertain them with their musical skills, which they learned at the hands of music masters who lived and taught within the Hospital? How many of Bloomsbury’s society, high and low, visited to hear the children sing their chapel services and see then dine in their silent, serried ranks, as was the popular custom?
Once, the beer-blunted eyes of drinkers staggering from The Lamb would have seen a statue of Thomas Coram towering above the Hospital gates on Guilford Place. Now, little more than the gatehouse remains. The grandest rooms of the razed building have been preserved in suspended animation in the Foundling Museum, where the visitor can whisper studiously before artworks that Coram elicited as donations to his cause from Hogarth, Gainsborough and their peers. So as you order your pint in the Marquis of Cornwallis, remember the children its bricks once clothed and fed. And as you pass those high walls on Guilford Place, listen as the ghostly voices sing down the years from the vanished chapel: Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done; that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.