Grit and pathos

Hello, friends. On Friday, I was over at Nineteenteen, blogging about the history of the London Foundling Hospital – essentially the first charity orphanage in a huge city rife with abandoned babies and homeless children. This is, at first glance, an eighteenth-century story: Thomas Coram, who fought to create the Foundling Hospital, did so in 1739. Its major patrons, composer George Frideric Handel and artist William Hogarth, were eighteenth-century figures. So what does this have to do with the Victorian era?

Dickens, of course. (Whenever in doubt, the answer is Dickens. Fact.) For a time, Dickens lived on Doughty Street in Bloomsbury, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Foundling Hospital. We know that Dickens was a frenetic walker and a fervent student of London life, in all its grit and intensity. He would definitely have noticed the daily dramas of the Foundling Hospital, and some of this found its way into his novels. For example, in Little Dorrit, the Meagle family adopts their servant Tattycoram from the Hospital. She’s a fierce and frustrated girl, Tattycoram. And have you noticed her name? The “coram” part is borrowed from Captain Thomas Coram, of course, the founder of the Hospital. Tattycoram is right to be impatient, because she’ll always be identified with the Foundling Hospital. Her (lack of) social status is right there in her name.

There’s also the story of Oliver Twist, with Oliver’s childhood in a poorhouse – not the Foundling Hospital, but another kind of holding place for destitute children. (If you haven’t read Oliver Twist, you may still know the famous scene of Oliver asking for more gruel.) Inspired by his own experience of child labour, Dickens attacks his society’s treatment of the poor – especially poor children. The children of the Foundling Hospital would have been a daily reminder and a constant prodding of his own traumatic memories.

I think what’s interesting here is the way history bleeds untidily from period to period. Although we can think, “Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram, Handel, Hogarth – yep, all eighteenth century”, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that institutions and problems endure. And the tragedies that Coram sought to prevent – the abandoned and homeless and dying children of London in the 1730s – continued through the Victoria era.

What do you think? Are there places or things you associate with one era which, in fact, belong to others as well?

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2 Responses to “Grit and pathos”

  1. The last time I was in London, I planned to go to the Foundling Musuem on the last day of my visit, but it is closed on Mondays, and it was a Monday. Next time, I will time my trip differently because I really want to see the place (I’m an c18ist). I was made aware of the musuem by one of my PhD supervisors who is actually a descendent of Thomas Coram!

  2. Ying says:

    Oh, wow – what a fun connection! And I share your frustration with closing times. I’m terrible at checking them myself, and end up staring hopefully/hopelessly at a locked door more than I care to admit.

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