Recollections of the Foundling Hospital

Our Fringe concert this year contains a performance of Handel’s Foundling Hospital Anthem, including it’s famous final chorus Hallelujah. In this article Cadenza’s Secretary, Morna Fleming, provides a bit more background to the hospital based on a visit some years ago, as well as historical detail on the building itself and Handel’s involvement in it’s history.

The Foundling Hospital was founded in 1739 by Thomas Coram for the ‘education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’ indicating the institution’s ‘hospitality’ to those less fortunate. Although the original building is long gone, it retains its legacy as a children’s playground. The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London, tells the story of the Hospital.

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard. Coloured engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753
© Gerald Coke Handel Foundation (used with permission)

The museum houses the nationally important Foundling Hospital Collection, some of whose most moving objects are the tokens – including coins, buttons, jewellery and poems – left by mothers with their babies on admission, enabling the Foundling Hospital to match a mother with her child should she ever return to claim it. The overwhelming majority of the children never saw their mothers again and the tokens are in the care of the museum. It is heart-rending to see the little scraps of material or ribbon which were all some of the poorest mothers were able to leave as tokens of their remembrance. Although many of the mothers were probably unmarried, it should not be assumed that all the foundlings were illegitimate.

The museum also holds Gerald Coke Handel Collection, an internationally important collection of material relating to Handel and his contemporaries.

The work included the Hallelujah chorus from recently composed oratorio, Messiah.

In May 1749, the composer George Frideric Handel held a benefit concert in the Hospital chapel to raise funds for the charity, performing his specially composed choral piece, the four-section Foundling Hospital Anthem. It is notable that Handel wrote the words for the piece, rather than taking a biblical or poetic model. The work included the Hallelujah chorus from recently composed oratorio, Messiah.

The artist William Hogarth, who was childless and was a founding governor of the Hospital, designed the children’s uniforms and the coat of arms. He and his wife fostered several children, and encouraged others to do likewise. He set up a permanent art exhibition, encouraging other artists to produce work for it, establishing what is actually Britain’s first public art gallery. The Museum now houses an impressive collection of artworks from the Hospital. It is very well worth a visit, and more details can be found at Homepage – Foundling Museum.