My Fascination With The Foundling Museum

By Pauline Black Last edited 17 months ago
My Fascination With The Foundling Museum

Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter, actress and author explains her fascination with the Foundling Museum.

A bust of co-founder Thomas Coram, above the Foundling Museum. Photo: Richardr

Nowhere does the old spiritual song that begins "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home" ring so true as when I enter the Foundling Museum. It is housed in an unprepossessing 1930s brick building, on the site of the original Foundling Hospital, politely nestled into a corner of Brunswick Square.

As an unwanted adopted child myself, the place always reminds me that had I been born even one generation earlier, I might well have been left there.

The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, the UK's first children's charity. After 17 years of tireless campaigning, Captain Thomas Coram was granted a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739, permitting the opening of the hospital. The first child was admitted in 1741 and the last child left for a foster family in 1954, exactly the same year as I was luckily given up for adoption. From Peter Pan to Superman, orphaned, abandoned and adopted children have a special place in our literature, but in real life very few have a happy ending.

One of many tokens at the museum

Inside, the museum smells of polished wood. The photos of children's uniforms and the tiny beds in their dormitories tug at the heartstrings and make you wonder how anybody could condemn children to such a fate just because of an accident of birth. Distraught mothers were told to bring a token with them to act as an identifier for their child when they left them at the Foundling Hospital, in order to prove which child was theirs if they ever returned. Such tokens could be anything from tiny pieces of fabric to coins, playing cards, jewellery and medals. The display of these objects is the most heartbreaking. I was especially moved at the sight of a tiny pink coral necklace. My mother had left something similar for me.

Tracey Emin's pink mitten. Photo: bradman334

Apparently, few mothers ever returned. An imposing thick red-carpeted wooden staircase lined with gold-framed portraits of the great and good of the day rises through two floors, until you reach the room housing George Frideric Handel's last will and testament. He bequeathed a copy of the original manuscript of Messiah to the Foundling Hospital. The Foundling Hospital was also one of Britain's first public art galleries. William Hogarth, who famously chronicled the underbelly of London life in his paintings, encouraged leading artists of his day to donate work. Handel donated an organ and conducted annual benefit concerts of Messiah in the hospital's chapel.

The museum still celebrates its founders' vision by encouraging artists, musicians and writers, and enabling them to work with vulnerable and marginalised young people today. But nothing sums up this emotive building as well as Tracy Emin's sculpture of a pink mitten on the railings outside the museum; a tiny lost glove, a small token of a child's presence, the one left behind. It is a perfect metaphor of loss. When you reach out to touch the mitten, that which should be real and soft is a hard brass object. A reminder that life is often hard, through no fault of our own.

This is an extract from For the Love of London by Conrad Gamble (Cassell £14.99).

Last Updated 16 February 2017