Thomas Coram was born in Coombe Street, Lyme Regis in 1668. His mother died when he was three years old and at eleven he went to sea. He spent much of his early life in the American colonies including operating a successful ship-building business in Taunton, Massachusetts.
In 1720 he returned to England where he was appalled by the many abandoned, homeless children living on the streets of London. After a 19 year battle he was rewarded when in 1739 George II gave Thomas Coram a Royal Charter to create the Foundlings Hospital. The Charter aimed to establish a “hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and destitute young children”. It is regarded as the world’s first incorporated charity. Although no longer a wealthy man, Coram managed to persuade many influential and wealthy people to support his cause. The Countess of Somerset pledged ten guineas a year and William Hogarth (one of the first governors of the hospital) and other artists donated artworks to further his vision.
The Foundlings Hospital, which was built in Bloomsbury, opened in 1745 and George Frederic Handel allowed the second concert performance of The Messiah to benefit the foundation, raising £7,000. Handel also donated the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus to the hospital and composed an anthem especially for a performance at the Hospital, now called the Foundling Hospital Anthem.
The Hospital organised for foster families to care for the babies and young children until the age of five, when they were then brought to live and be educated in the Foundling Hospital until the age of 16, many being trained for domestic or military service.
Thomas Coram’s great determination meant that he was not always an easy man to work with. He was excluded from the hospital’s committees, but remained a governor. He was allowed to attend Christenings and became godfather to twenty children. In later years he could occasionally be found sitting in the garden, feeding the children raisins.
His efforts were finally recognised in his eighties when a subscription fund was established to support him. He died on the 29th March 1751 and in accordance with his wishes was buried in the vaults beneath the hospital chapel.
The organisation Thomas Coram created is still active today. Known simply as Coram it offers emotional and practical support to more than a million children and young people a year. The site of the Foundlings Hospital in Bloomsbury is now a seven acre playground called Coram Fields. Adults are only permitted if accompanied by a child.
As John Fowles, author and honorary curator of Lyme Regis Museum wrote in his short history of Lyme Regis “Dear old Coram died in 1751, a complete pauper. Every penny of his fortune had been ‘lost’ in the hospital. Lyme has more famous names attached to it, but none of kinder memory”.
In 2011 the Museum hosted an audio visual exhibition about the Foundling Hospitals called “Foundling Voices”.