The experiences of the shunned illegitimate children of Georgian London may seem a world away from current concerns, but former Coram Family chief executive Gillian Pugh believes there are important parallels to be drawn.
In a new book, London’s Forgotten Children, Pugh tells the story of Thomas Coram, a pioneer who set up the Foundling Hospital to give illegitimate children a home, care and education.
Today more than 40% of babies in the UK are born to parents who are not married, and the stigma of being so has faded.
But it was very much apparent when the home was set up in 1739 and society shunned illegitimate children and their unmarried mothers.
Pugh, who retired as chief executive of Coram Family in 2005, points out that the Foundling Hospital has a confusing name. It was not for foundlings – abandoned babies – but for illegitimate children, brought in by their mothers, forced to give up their progeny because of the stigma and difficulties of raising them. Unmarried mothers found securing work or a husband impossible, so could not provide for their offspring.
Also, the Foundling Hospital was not a hospital it was the first children’s home, established by Coram after he saw children dying alone on the streets of London. Coram was certainly ahead of his time in creating a children’s charity, long before the religious Victorian philanthropists who set up Children’s Homes, now NCH (1869), Barnardo’s (1870), and the Waifs and Strays, now the Children’s Society (1881).
Poverty and heavy drinking were rife in the capital in the 18th century. Children survived by any means possible, including prostitution, begging, and picking pockets.
Life was hard for most children but attitudes towards illegitimate young people added “guilt, inferiority and rejection” to their struggles, argues Pugh.
We have moved on since then and illegitimacy is no longer regarded as a stigma. Yet stigma still affects some groups, including refugees and asylum seekers, travellers or people from ethnic minorities, says Pugh.
The original purpose of the Foundling Hospital was to remove children from their parents to give them a better life. Babies were placed with foster parents or wet nurses for their first five years, then brought back to the hospital. Accounts from Foundling Hospital residents included in the book reveal great affection for foster parents, more than for the institutional regime at the hospital, which Pugh admits could be harsh.
Residential care was phased out by the 1950s in favour of foster care, with the hospital changing its name to Thomas Coram Foundation for Children and, more recently, to Coram Family.
For Pugh, a key lesson from Coram’s history is children’s need to have someone for whom they are special, to build their “resilience” to future frustrations or adversity.
She says: “Although things have changed and we do have a much greater understanding of children’s need for emotional support, there are still a lot of children for whom that emotional support is not available.”
Another area where much has progressed but much has stayed the same is the role of the voluntary sector. In the 1800s, the Foundling Hospital received a grant from parliament but eventually returned it because the terms of the funding compromised the quality of the charity’s services.
Pugh remains active in children’s services and is chair of the National Children’s Bureau, where she set up and ran its early childhood unit. She also sits on the board of the Children’s Workforce Development Council and was awarded a DBE and OBE for services to children.
The view on Pugh
“I can think of no one in the voluntary sector who has made as significant a contribution to the well-being of children” – former government chief adviser on children’s services, Naomi Eisenstadt.
London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and the Foundling Hospital by Gillian Pugh, Tempus Publishing Limited, ISBN 9780752442440
National Children’s Bureau
Children’s Workforce Development Council
Contact the author
This article appeared in the 31 May issue, under the headline “In memory of the forgotten children”