In Focus: The women who defied their husbands – among them England’s richest men – to care for abandoned children

A fascinating exhibition at the Foundling Museum focuses on the women who refused to countenance the prejudices of the time, and in so doing established Britain's first children's charity. Lilias Wigan explains.

Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset, 1720-1740, by Charles D'Agar. Courtesy of Lord Egremont

Charlotte, Duchess of Somerset, 1720-1740, by Charles D’Agar. Courtesy of Lord Egremont

A century on from the success of Britain’s female suffrage movement, we are familiar with accounts of those at the public forefront of the campaigning – of Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, and other valiant fighters of the cause, many of whom suffered jail, brutal force feeding or beating as a consequence of their determined efforts.

Now, to mark the centenary of women’s vote in Britain, the Foundling Museum tells us the story of a quieter crusade that has gone largely unnoticed for the last 300 years through their new exhibition, ‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’, on display at the museum in Brunswick Square until 20th January.

Leading this campaign was Captain Thomas Coram (1668-1751), a champion of female education who appreciated the vital role that women had in business. In his mercantile world it was commonplace for work to be conducted from home, where men and women would jointly run their enterprises. Coram was influenced by the more balanced social structure in New England, America, where he spent many years, and by his New Englander wife, Eunice Waite.

Coram had a mission: he was determined to establish Britain’s first home dedicated to caring for abandoned children and babies – or ‘foundlings,’ as they were then called. This would require a Royal Charter from George II; getting that charter proved difficult, however, and it would be a battle which would take him 17 years to win.

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Having initially been snubbed by British male aristocracy, Coram turned to their spouses for support instead, seeking the approval of 21 ‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’.

Thomas Coram's pocket book, c1720-39, ©The Foundling Museum

Thomas Coram’s pocket book, c1720-39, ©Coram

His first target was the teenage Duchess of Somerset at her home, Petworth House in West Sussex. Her husband, Charles Seymour, was the richest man in England and had already refused Coram’s pleas. Jeopardising her reputation by publicly supporting such an unseemly cause, the Duchess bravely signed the petition.

Over time, other duchesses, baronesses and countesses followed suit, signing their own names and persuading their husbands to do the same. The Charter was eventually granted in 1739, and so the Foundling Hospital – Britain’s first children’s charity (and also the first public art gallery) – was established.

The ladies who provided the catalyst for the success of the hospital were not mentioned in the charter, which listed its 375 male signatories. Their names would have gone completely unknown had Coram not recorded them in his pocket book. The hospital’s General Committee encapsulated this attitude in its statement:

‘We hope we may receive the assistance of the fair sex, who altho’ excluded by custom from the management of Publik Business, are by their natural tenderness and compassion peculiarly enabled to advise in the care and management of children.’

Coram recognised the desperate need to change this type of chauvinism and fought to prove that women had capabilities beyond childcare.

Almost three centuries on, due deference is finally given to the peaceful female protestors. Instead of confronting ranks of male governors in the first floor Picture Gallery, we come face to face with court portraits of these pioneering women who supported Coram’s petition. Composed and draped in robes, they guard the room, meeting eyes with their female peers hanging opposite.

Andrea Soldi, Countess of Huntingdon, with her husband and children, c1740. ©The Cheshunt Foundation / image courtesy of the Ladies of Quality & Distinction exhibition at The Foundling Hospital in London

Andrea Soldi, Countess of Huntingdon, with her husband and children, c1740. ©The Cheshunt Foundation / image courtesy of the Ladies of Quality & Distinction exhibition at The Foundling Hospital in London

Beneath them, at subterranean level, tribute is paid to all of the women who laboured arduously for the daily running of the hospital. Stand-in mothers, wet nurses, laundresses, cooks and scullery maids were vital players in the charity and are brought to life by a succession of stories of women of different ranks, including Miss Eleanor Barnes, one of the earliest female Governors; they span a period ranging from the 1740s to the 1950s.

Female Governors weren’t permitted until after the First World War, by which point changes in social legislation had enabled women to work in certain professions. Many shown or written about are unidentifiable, but served in countless ways that have been highlighted. Several women in rural communities nurtured children from the hospital, partly because of risk of disease transmission – scabies and smallpox were rife. A wet nurse, Elizabeth Newman, was said to have contracted syphilis from a child she was breastfeeding.

Frances Flint, foster mother, East Peckham, c.1900. ©Coram

Frances Flint, foster mother, East Peckham, c.1900. ©Coram

Although the hospital closed in 1954, it continues its work as the charity Coram. In its time it has cared for and educated over 25,000 children. This significant success story is celebrated through the vivid accounts of its female staff and supporters on display. They provide a fascinating insight into Thomas Coram’s humanitarian concern for the female role in changing public attitudes.

‘Ladies of Quality & Distinction’ is on display at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ, until 20th January, 2019. Find out more at