Hogarth’s Thomas Coram

J A N E   M c L A U G H L I N

Jane McLaughlin   74 Hogarth's Thomas Coram

I am not a social worker but I work for Whiting and Birch, a publisher in the field. In addition to this work I am a published writer of short stories and poetry.


I chose Hogarth’s portrait of Thomas Coram because …

… of my admiration of William Hogarth as a painter and social commentator; his works such as ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘A Rake’s Progress’ still form part of our social and moral consciousness. Of course this painting is from a period before social work roles were established, when there was only philanthropy and charity. Hogarth supported the work of the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram; the work done by Hogarth, his subject Thomas Coram and others like them was the foundation of the principles and practice that grew later into social work.

William Hogarth, who was childless, had a long association with the Hospital and was a founding Governor. He designed the children’s uniforms, the Coat of Arms, he was an Inspector for Wet Nurses, and he and his wife Jane fostered foundling children. Hogarth also decorated the walls of the hospital with works of art donated by contemporary British artists – the Governors being unwilling to spend money on such ‘ornaments’ [1].

I also chose this object because Thomas Coram, the subject of the portrait was a social innovator whose work continues today through the Coram Foundation which provides services for children ranging from adoption to health and drug education. He was a successful merchant who devoted many years of his life to getting funding and support for the work.

While living in Rotherhithe and regularly travelling into London to engage in his business interests (a journey of about 4 miles), Coram was frequently shocked by the sight of infants exposed in the streets, often in a dying state. He began to agitate for the foundation of a foundling hospital. He laboured for seventeen years, and induced many ladies of rank to sign a memorial. A charter was at last obtained for the Foundling Hospital, considerable sums subscribed, and the first meeting of the guardians were held at Somerset House 20 November 1739 [2].

There was of course at the time enormous stigmatisation and indeed persecution of unmarried mothers and the Foundling Hospital aimed not only to care for the children but to give the women a chance of a better life.

Mothers brought their babies to the Foundling Hospital to be cared for, with many hopeful that their financial circumstances would change so they could one day reclaim them. The Hospital arranged for foster families, many in the Home Counties (counties near London), to care for the babies and young children until the age of five. They were then brought to live and be educated in the Foundling Hospital until the age of 15, many being trained for domestic or military service. [3]

There were hard choices to be made in those days, as the Hospital could not take all the children who needed care.


You can read more about the history on the Foundling Museum website. [4]

There is an interesting interpretation of the style and imagery of the portrait:


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/foundling_01.shtml)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Coram

[3] http://www.coram.org.uk/about-us/our-heritage-foundling-hospital)

[4] http://foundlingmuseum.org.uk


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