England’s Ideology

Roy Porter

  • Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century by Ruth McClure
    Yale, 321 pp, £15.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 300 02465 7
  • Children of the Empire by Gillian Wagner
    Weidenfeld, 284 pp, £10.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 297 78047 6

If old sea-dog Thomas Coram’s mission had been to found the most English, the most 18th-century of charities, he could not have done better than launch the Foundling Hospital – which he did, its doors receiving its first infant in 1741. Till then, England – unlike other countries – had had no hospice designed for abandoned babies, though such an idea had been floated in a characteristic gesture of lay piety by Addison in the Guardian. Unlike Continental refuges for orphans and bastards, the Foundling Hospital was run neither by the state, to produce well-drilled army recruits, nor by the Church, eager to baptise young souls. Embodying the spirit of mercantile private enterprise, it was constituted on joint-stock principles, headed by a governing board which combined landed and commercial wealth with a sprinkling of lawyers and doctors, several of them Masons. In time, royalty did not blush to patronise the charity, though bishop governors were notably few, and women were absent. The Hospital was, in Ruth McClure’s words, the pioneer case of ‘incorporated associative benevolence’, with the aim, as Joseph Massie put it, that ‘Charity, Humanity, Patriotism and Economy be made to go hand in hand’. Popean, if not quite Mandevillian, in their humanitarianism, the benefactors knew that self-love and social were the same. As Thomas Coram himself computed the matter of charity towards the young, ‘a pound of malaga Raisins which costs 3d fills them with above 5 pounds worth of Love for me.’

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