Opinion

Children growing up in care today are having a much worse time than I did

Former Foundling Hospital pupil John Caldicott says that children in care today have it worse than he did living in a children's home in 1935

Former Foundling Hospital pupil John Caldicott shares his childhood memories

In 1935, my mother found herself pregnant, destitute and totally alone. When I was three months old, she gave me up to the Foundling Hospital, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739 to care for illegitimate babies.

The heartbreak my mother must have felt at having to part with her baby would have been horrendous. But the social stigma that unmarried mothers faced meant she had no choice. When she went back to work after giving me up, the girls in the factory ridiculed and ostracised her. Nobody wanted to help her, not even her own family. This was the price she had to pay for her “mistake”.

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Life at the Foundling Hospital was very regimented with the boys dressed in the red and brown school uniform designed by the painter Hogarth in the 1700’s and the girls in brown dresses and white pinafores like those worn by domestic servants. Strange as it may seem, there was also a sense of loneliness. But despite the harshness of life in the Foundling Hospital and the lack of family love, the welfare of the children was second to none. Children enjoyed nutritious food and the best medical care available at the time.

One of the most important supporters of Thomas Coram was the composer Handel, a governor who presented the Foundling Hospital with a magnificent pipe Organ.  Like many of the children experiencing the harsh environment of institutional life, I have never forgotten the uplifting of spirits as the sounds of this pipe organ reverberated high up in the vaulted ceiling.  

Portrait of Captain Thomas Coram By William Hogarth 1740 © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum

Foundling Hospital and a musical legacy

Handel also left a musical legacy which had a beneficial impact on the children throughout Foundling Hospital’s 200-year history. Formal music education in the 1700s was the preserve of the elites so the Foundling Hospital was ahead of its time in teaching the children music. Music was something tangible that the children would enjoy, and it equipped them with tools that would benefit them therapeutically and practically for the rest of their lives.

The boys were given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. We had our own marching band, and the bandmaster had his own way of deciding which instrument a boy would be suited to. The bandmaster, a former army bandmaster, would look at the boy’s facial features and the size of his hand and say cornet, clarinet, trombone etc. Teaching was very disciplined. The bandmaster, who we nicknamed ‘Bootsy’, would stamp on our feet to ‘encourage us’ to keep us in time with the music. I was taught to play the clarinet to a very reasonable standard.

In the early days, the girls did not join bands, they were encouraged to join the choir and taught singing. By the late 1940’s they were taught to play musical instruments with some going on to study music at the Royal Academy of Music.

The children derived tremendous pleasure and knowledge from learning and singing many of the standard church compositions including those by Bach, Haydn, Mendelsohn and of course Handel. The standard of music was such that at one point it was suggested by a Governor that the institution should become a Music Academy.

Upon leaving the Foundling Hospital many of the boys joined military bands and went on to become bandmasters. Kneller Hall, the Army School of Music, records that over 400 former pupils of the Foundling Hospital trained as bandmasters; more than any other single organisation. In civilian life, many of the former pupils joined the top orchestras in the country.

The Boys’ Band at the Foundling Hospital was created in 1847

Leaving the care system

The Foundling Hospital was also ahead of its time in terms of the aftercare that was provided. When the children were old enough to leave school the Foundling Hospital made sure that every child had a job to go to and somewhere to live. When I left the Foundling Hospital in 1952, I was asked what I wanted to do and replied, “I’m fascinated by how music came out of a radio”. An apprenticeship was arranged for me in a music shop which sold and repaired radios. I was able to learn a trade and continue my interest in music, gaining hands-on experience with a wide range of musical instruments. Over the years, I moved into sales and then purchasing and contracting in the public sector.

Sadly today, many children in care do not receive the help they need when they leave care. These young people have to manage their lives without the support, knowledge and tools to face the world. Up to a third of care leavers are homeless within two years of leaving care and a quarter of prisoners have come through the care system. It is a complete failure of the powers that be that young people today are allowed to slip through the net, in most cases through no fault of their own, without the support and being denied the opportunity of having a place to live and a career or training.

Many children growing up in care today are having a much worse time than I did, moving between multiple foster care placements with little stability. When I met a group of care experienced young people, they were sitting with their hoods up looking at the floor and I thought, ‘What am I going to do here?’ But within ten minutes, these children were really listening. Although I came from a different generation, I was talking about something that they could connect to. It gave me a lot of satisfaction to think if even one of these young people could find a way through their problems as a result of listening to me, then that would be brilliant. 

There is now a major project to digitise the archives of the Foundling Hospital, known today as the charity Coram. The Voices Through Time project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund will bring these personal stories to life and safeguard them for future generations.

I recently took part in Coram’s new documentary No Place Like Home: The Story of the Foundling Hospital which gives a wonderful insight into the lives of the 27,000 children who grew up in the Foundling Hospital, the plight of their mothers and the innovative work of Coram today. 

It is only by understanding and learning from history that we can find solutions to today’s problems and give children all the help and care that is their right.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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