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date: 21 August 2019

Coram, Thomasfree

(c. 1668–1751)
  • James Stephen Taylor

Thomas Coram (c. 1668–1751)

by William Hogarth, 1740

Coram Foundation, Foundling Museum, London / Bridgeman Art Library

Coram, Thomas (c. 1668–1751), philanthropist, was born in or near Lyme Regis, Dorset, but no baptismal record is extant. His parents were probably John Coram (bap. 1629) and his wife, Spes (d. 1677), of that town, John Coram being in merchant shipping. Thomas Coram's earliest years can only be conjectured from autobiographical comments in letters written late in life. He wrote that his mother died when he was young and he went to sea in his eleventh year, that his father remarried and moved to Hackney, and that he, Thomas, was later apprenticed by his father to a Thames-side shipwright.

In 1691–2 Coram was engaged by the government to audit the tonnage of troop and supply transports to Ireland. His abilities attracted the attention of London merchants, who in spring 1694 put him in charge of an enterprise to establish a new shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts. New England was a promising area at that time for a young man of obscure antecedents, but Coram was a staunch Anglican in a puritan colony. For the next ten years he built ships in Boston and Taunton, but attracted enemies, resulting in prolonged litigation and an attempt on his life. On 27 June 1700 he married Eunice Wait (Wayte; 1677–1740) of Boston. Coram claimed it was a happy marriage, though apparently childless, and his letters suggest loving relationships with the Wait family.

Coram's ten-year sojourn in New England made him an ardent mercantilist. His first project on his return to England in 1704 was to lobby for an act to encourage the importation of naval stores from North America in order to reduce dependence on Scandinavia (3 & 4 Anne c. 10). Thereafter he appears to have commanded merchant ships during the War of the Spanish Succession, acquiring the title of captain in consequence. His interest in the North American colonies led him to identify corrupt practices in contracting naval stores from there, and Boston harbour's need for a lighthouse. In 1712 he was elected to a role in a private corporation, Trinity House, Deptford, which combined public responsibilities with charitable purposes. His election signified Coram's growing reputation as a public servant knowledgeable in naval affairs.

After the treaty of Utrecht (1713) Coram unsuccessfully promoted the colonization of lands in what later became upper Maine. Using discharged soldiers, Coram believed the colony could strengthen a vulnerable frontier and provide hemp and timber for the Royal Navy. In 1719 he visited Hanover to scout for timber. His ship, the Seaflower, fell victim to German wreckers out of Cuxhaven; none the less he was able to effect changes in regulations that allowed for the importation of timber from Germany for use by the navy.

While living at Rotherhithe and pursuing his business interests in London, Coram regularly travelled a route on which he saw abandoned children, some dead, others dying. In 1722, motivated by an enduring blend of Christian benevolence, practical morality, and civic spirit, he decided to take action. Inspired by examples of foundling hospitals on the continent, he advocated one for London. However, failure attended these first efforts. In February 1727 he sought employment by the privy council, and his appeal was forwarded to the Admiralty. It is uncertain whether he was given a sinecure, but he used the Navy Office for his letters. While Coram is now best-known for the Foundling Hospital project, during the 1720s he continued to be interested in colonization ventures north of Massachusetts, at various times in the region of Maine, and later in Nova Scotia; these attracted both considerable support and opposition, the latter from those with prior economic interests there. With the support of Thomas Bray, with whom the Corams for a time lived, Coram also turned his attention to additional philanthropic ventures, including missionary work in North America, the development of parochial libraries there, aid for imprisoned debtors, and a colonial programme in the region of the Savannah River, in what became the royal colony of Georgia.

In 1732 Coram assisted the hatters of London to obtain protection for their industry (5 Geo. II, c. 22) and declined recompense beyond a hat. In the same year he became a trustee for the new colony of Georgia, incorporated by royal charter, and thereupon took an active role in raising funds and seeing off colonists at Gravesend and Dover [see Trustees for establishing the colony of Georgia in America]. In 1734 he fell foul of the colony's founder, James Oglethorpe, and his supporters, primarily over his opposition to restrictions enacted to deny the right of female inheritance in the colony. He publicized his opposition, was cut by his opponents, and ceased an active role in the colony's future. Yet by this time Coram had acquired a reputation for knowledge of colonial affairs. In 1735 Horace Walpole wrote to his brother Robert, the prime minister, that Coram was the 'honestest, the most disinterested, & the most knowing person about the plantations I ever talked with' (W. Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, 1798, 3.243).

Coram had by now a wide set of acquaintances, experience in petitions, and persistence, but his efforts to promote a foundling hospital initially attracted only modest interest, and opposition from those who believed a hospital would increase illegitimate births. Moreover Coram, the promoter, was poorly educated, relatively rough-mannered, advanced in years, and lacked a patron, as well as wealth and pedigree. The turning point in his campaign was the 'ladies petition' of 1729, signed by peeresses, and the patronage of Queen Caroline. Coram's comment on the men who had been initially apathetic was that he might as well have asked them to 'putt down their Breeches and present their Backsides to the King and Queen' (Coram to Colman, 22 Sept 1738, Letters of Thomas Coram, 43). The saltiness and candour of Coram's language, offensive to some, was a thread throughout his long career, contributing to litigation in New England and his eventual ostracism by the other governors of the Foundling Hospital.

Coram's petitions came before the king in council on 21 July 1737. A committee of the privy council was charged to consider, and Coram was given the responsibility for finding the first governors. He recommended 375 individuals, approximately half of whom he personally approached, his two criteria for selection being wealth and influence. Of the governors 89 were peers, 35 country gentlemen, 66 merchants, and 72 MPs. In addition Coram was required to raise funds to cover costs. The Foundling Hospital charter was signed by the king on 14 August 1739, and the first meeting of the governors was held at Somerset House that November. Coram scouted sites for the hospital, designed a corporate seal, researched foundling hospitals on the continent, and inspected temporary quarters in Hatton Garden. At that site the hospital opened its doors on 25 March 1741. Later that year irregularities at the hospital were aired publicly and Coram was implicated in having been indiscreet in his criticisms. Details are murky, but Coram's active participation in the hospital's governance ended in the spring of 1742. The new purpose-built hospital, at Lamb's Conduit Fields, began to receive children on 1 October 1745.

In his last years Coram witnessed a number of other successes: the lighthouse for Boston harbour was built, the Georgia trustees decided to permit female inheritance, and a civilian settlement was established in Nova Scotia. In addition the London hospital prospered, not only as a home for foundlings but as a centre for the capital's fashionable society, who combined benevolent gestures with an enjoyment of art works donated by leading British artists including William Hogarth, Francis Hayman, and Joseph Highmore, and the attendance (from 1750) of annual concerts organized by George Frideric Handel (like Hogarth, a hospital governor). In mid-July 1740 Coram's wife died, but Coram remained active to the end. Although heavy-set, he ate and slept well and could walk 10 to 12 miles in a day. He retained his interest in philanthropies even though his earlier causes were now the work of others. William Hogarth's oil on canvas portrait of Coram (1740), replete with symbols of his mercantilist and philanthropic interests, shows a man with natural, flowing white hair, ruddy cheeks, rugged features, and purposeful eyes. He had made his living building ships and transporting naval stores, but he had laid nothing aside for his later years. In 1749 his supporters raised a subscription for his maintenance.

Alongside his successes Coram also faced the failure of several projects, among them a refuge for impoverished New Englanders stranded in London, a hostel for vagrants, a foundling hospital for Westminster, and an Anglican college in Massachusetts. One of his last efforts was a scheme—in tune with his latitudinarian and patriotic ethos of philanthropy—to promote the education of Native American girls as a means of spreading Christianity and strengthening the bonds of empire. He died, aged about eighty-three, at his lodgings on Spur Street, off Leicester Square, London, on 29 March 1751, and in accordance with his wishes he was buried, on 3 April, in the vault under the Foundling Hospital chapel.

If the oft-told story is true that Coram sat in the Foundling Hospital arcade in his last years distributing gingerbread to the children, it was a momentary rest from more active projects. His greatest achievement was to provide the template for eighteenth-century philanthropy of a secular foundation modelled on the joint-stock company, of which the Foundling Hospital was the first and finest expression.

Sources

  • R. K. McClure, Coram's children: the London Foundling Hospital in the eighteenth century (1981)
  • R. K. McClure, ‘The captain and the children’, PhD diss., Columbia University, 1975
  • ‘The letters of Thomas Coram’, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 56 (1922–3), 15–56
  • H. B. Fant, ‘Picturesque Thomas Coram’, Georgia Historical Quarterly, 32 (1948), 77–104
  • R. Brocklesby, Private virtue and publick spirit display'd in a succinct essay on the character of Thomas Coram (1751)
  • R. H. Nichols and F. A. Wray, The history of the Foundling Hospital (1935)
  • H. Compston, Thomas Coram, churchman, empire builder and philanthropist (1918)
  • J. Brownlow, Memoranda or chronicles of the Foundling Hospital (1847)
  • H. A. Hill, Thomas Coram in Boston and Taunton (1892)
  • G. F. Jones, ed., Henry Newman's Salzburger letterbooks (1966)
  • GM, 1st ser., 21 (1751), 141, 183
  • J. Hutchins, The history and antiquities of the county of Dorset, 2 vols. (1774)
  • D. T. Andrew, Philanthropy and police: London charity in the eighteenth century (1989)

Archives

  • Mass. Hist. Soc., letters
  • Foundling Museum, London, family MSS, records
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., Harvard Univ. MSS, ‘Memorial on Foundling Hospital’

Likenesses

  • W. Hogarth, oils, 1740, Foundling Museum, London [see illus.]
  • wash drawing, 1740 (after W. Hogarth, 1740), NPG
  • B. Nebot, engraving, 1741, Foundling Museum, London
  • J. Macardell, mezzotint, 1749 (after W. Hogarth), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

next to none: Brocklesby, Private virtue

Gentleman's Magazine