A ship-builder and New World colonist of some renown, Thomas Coram is primarily remembered now as the founder of London’s Foundling Hospital.
While details of Coram’s early life are sketchy, it is known that he was born in Dorset, possibly in Lyme Regis, in 1668 and was believed to be the son of a merchant seaman, John Coram.
Coram’s mother apparently died while he was still young and he went to sea at the age of just 11. Following his father’s remarriage, however, the family moved to Hackney in East London and it was after that move that Coram was apprenticed to a shipwright working beside the Thames.
In 1694, having previously worked for the Government auditing troop and supply ships, a group of merchants asked Coram to establish a new shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts. He did so and spent the next 10 years building ships in Boston and Taunton. But, a staunch Anglican living among Puritans, he apparently make some enemies while doing so (this led to lawsuits and even apparently an attempt on his life). It was during this time that he also married a Bostonian, Eunice Wait.
Following his return to England in 1704, Coram found further success as a merchant and was soon commanding merchant ships during the War of the Spanish Succession (it is believed it was during this time that he acquired the title of captain). Throughout the following years he continued to conduct business in the New World colonies – particularly Massachusetts and Maine – as well as in London.
It was after he had moved to Rotherhithe in 1719 that Coram’s eyes were opened to the plight of abandoned children – he would apparently see them when travelling into London – and, his heart obviously moved, he began to advocate for the creation of a foundling hospital similar to those he had seen on the continent during his travels.
While his efforts initially came to nothing, Coram eventually received the backing of Queen Caroline, wife of King George II – an important step for the plain-speaking seaman. Having presented numerous petitions to the king, His Majesty finally signed the Foundling Hospital Charter on 14th August, 1739. The first meeting of the governors – which included notables such as artist William Hogarth and prominent physician Dr Richard Mead – was held at Somerset House that November.
A temporary hospital opened it’s doors at Hatton Garden on 25th March, 1741, and the first foundlings were baptised Thomas and Eunice Coram. But it was only four and a half years later – in October, 1745 – that a purpose-built hospital opened its doors in an area known as Bloomsbury Fields. As well as Hogarth (who painted Coram in 1740 – the picture can still be seen in the Foundling Hospital today), the hospital also attracted the support of composer George Frideric Handel.
Coram’s role in the governance of the hospital effectively came to an end in 1741-1742 (he is said to have made some indiscreet comments about some of his fellow governors) but – despite being still engaged in numerous business activities – he continued to visit the hospital regularly and, as well as being Godfather to more than 20 of the foundlings, the story goes that he found the time to sit in an arcade at the hospital and pass out pieces of gingerbread to the children.
Captain Thomas Coram died on 29th March, 1751, in lodgings on Spur Street near Leicester Square (his wife Eunice had died earlier, in July 1740, and the couple had no children). He was buried in the Foundling Hospital chapel.
One of the best places to visit to find out more about Captain Coram and his life is the Foundling Museum, housed in part of the former hospital. For our previous story on the hospital, follow this link. A statue of Coram (pictured above) stands outside in Brunswick Square.