Twis the day before Christmas and so I thought I would honor one of my favorite parenting heroes—Thomas Coram.  One hundred years before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Thomas Coram created the London Foundling Hospital in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, Bloomsbury.

Coram had no children.  He was a ship’s captain and after he retired he was horrified at the way impoverished children fared, often dying, on the streets of London.  The notion of an orphanage was unprecedented at this time.  In order to even try to start a charity, the world’s first incorporated one at that, Coram needed permission of the crown.  The aristocrats he approached initially refused to take an interest in poor children—it was beyond the realm of their thinking to value such kids, despite the epidemic of “foundlings” left to die on doorsteps as destitute mothers lacked means to care for them.

It took years, but Coram finally got one aristocrat on board and then a few more and they eventually appealed to the Queen.  He kicked in his own money, but to raise enough, his artist friends donated works and this marked the first art auction as well as the first time that common folk were able to see paintings by such notables as Hogarth (who famously painted Coram).  At this time there were no art museums and besides church, the only people who were privy to fine art were the wealthy.

Coram’s initial Foundling Hospital was so overrun with foundlings that he had to create a lottery to fairly decide which children he could take in.  The overwhelming need for a man like Thomas Coram must have stood in stark contrast to the thinking of his day.  Coram’s position of compassion seems self-evident to our modern sensibility, even if we do not yet live as a society by this principle; yet he broke new ground by caring when the vast majority did not—at least not enough to do anything about it.

If you ever find yourself in London, not too far from the British Museum and even closer to Russell Square you will find a wonderful little park for children.  A grown-up must have a child along with them in order to enter the free, but gated paradise of lawns, shade trees, fun climbing structures, and along one side—guinea pigs, bunnies and goats.  Coram’s organization lives on, but this first site of the Foundling’s Hospital is still a respite for children and their weary parents.

I happened upon Coram Fields on a morning walk in London, and found it enchanting, my kids were still young enough (barely) to share in the magic and I hastened back with my wife and sons to simply play and enjoy.  My curiosity led me to wonder about this strangely evocative place and to find a little charity gift-shop in a corner of the park by the gated entrance.  Materials that they had there allowed me to learn, and in turn share, Coram’s largely unsung story here.  While there have been some plays and a book, the average Londoner I spoke to about Coram turned out to be oblivious to his story—and many didn’t even know about the little gem of a park.

So, while Dickens is also one of my greatest parenting heroes (not necessarily to his own kids, but in raising social consciousness), he has been criticized by some for talking about social problems but not “doing anything” about them.  I strongly disagree, and believe that Dickens changed our collective consciousness, at least in the industrialized capitalism of the West.  However, Thomas Coram, much less celebrated, is an angel for underserved children everywhere, pioneering an attitude of compassion and working tirelessly to put it into action.  I would even argue that Coram laid a foundation of consciousness on which Dickens could stand in order to actually see the full spectrum of humanity sprawled across his amazing, dazzling and at the same time darkly depraved city.

Coram and Dickens inspire us to see, to care, to act.  Compared to eighteenth century destitute Londoners I would surmise that all of us who are reading these words have something to be grateful for two-hundred and sixty years after Coram.  So, on this Christmas eve let’s take a moment to honor these ghosts of compassion past, particularly Thomas Coram—and let’s send our gratitude up in the service of all our collective children (too many of whom still live in poverty), carrying that torch collectively so that none of us need to be heroes, but so that together we can be proud of our family of “parents” and remember that parenting is as much, if not more, attitudinal than biological.

Namaste, Bruce

For more on Coram see:


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3 Responses to “Twis”

  1. Christina Says:

    Love this! I had never heard of Thomas Coram and I’m so happy to learn of him and his work. Thank you for sharing. 🙂 Happy Holidays!!

  2. Laurie Says:

    Happy holidays to you and yours.

  3. Beth K Says:

    Thanks for sharing this inspiring story, Bruce!

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