Discover the Foundling Museum, London’s First Public Art Gallery

What do Handel, Hogarth and homeless children have in common?  The Foundling Hospital and its modern day successor the Foundling Museum, that’s what.   The Foundling Hospital was both the first children’s charity and the first public art gallery, an unusual combination.  Come with me and discover the fascinating story at the Foundling Museum.


Visitors to the Foundling Museum today can see the art collection that was started by Hogarth and continues to grow with contemporary artists donating work, as well as learning about the hospital and some of the 25,000 children that it helped over the years.

On the ground floor there is a gallery telling the stories of mothers and the children that they left behind.  Mothers would leave a token behind, if circumstances changed they could come a reclaim the child by showing the matching token.  Only the tokens of the unreclaimed children remain.  It is heartbreaking to see so many and to know that there are many thousands more in the archives.

Foundling Museum Token

The children slept in large dormitories, as you stand and look at the small bed a recording of some of the last children to live in the hospital is played.  It was not a place of midnight feasts and jolly japes.

Foundling Hospital dormitory

First Public Art Gallery in London

Hogarth and Lily Cole take up position on opposite walls in the room in which you enter the art gallery part of the museum.  Hogarth’s morality tale looks down the room at a screen playing a short film by the former supermodel, that tells the heart rending story of women leaving their babies at the hospital.

Hogarth Foundling Museum

Although the current building dates from the 1930’s several of the fixtures and fitting from the original Georgian buildings were used meaning that when you ascend the portrait strewn staircase you feel as if you are in a centuries old building.  One the first turn of the stairs is the latest portrait to enter the collection, it is also the first of a woman.  That woman is the children’s author Dame Jacqueline Wilson.  Following in the tradition of artists creating work that brings people to the Foundling Museum, Dame Jacqueline has created the Hetty Feather series of books with the heroine being a Victorian Foundling.  The portrait is by Saied Dai and was commissioned by Dame Stephanie Shirley.

Jacqueline Wilson portrait Foundling Museum

Once you step into the Court room the illusion of Georgian splendour is complete.  I am not sure what is more amazing in this room the fabulous over top decoration of the Rococo room or the face that it was painstakingly moved from the old buildings to be exactly recreated.  Look up to the ornately molded plaster ceiling and try to work out how they moved it and where the joins are.  

Court room Foundling Museum

Right at the top of the building you will find the Gerald Coke Handel Library.  If you need to do some research about Handel this is the place to come.  If not that take time to reline in the rather wonderful wing chairs, they have speakers in the wings and you can select experts of Handel’s music to listen to whilst you relax.

Handel Wing Chair


Finally in 1739 a Royal Charter was granted and a ‘hospital for the maintenance and eduction of exposed and deserted young children’ was opened.  Children was fed, housed and educated at the hospital for the next 225 years.  When the hospital shut its doors the charity turned its focus on helping children into foster homes, it continues its work today under the name of Coram.  

Foundling Museum exterior

Care of the children was funded with the help of William Hogarth and Georg Frederic Handel, two of the leading artists of the time.  Hogarth donated work to the hospital and persuaded his friends to do the same, people of fashion began to flock to what became the first public art gallery.  Handel donated an organ to the Hospital and put on regular benefit performances of the Messiah.  When he died, Handel left a fair copy of the Messiah score enabling the annual benefit concerts to continue.


Thomas Coram was a shipbuilder, when he returned to London after 11 years in America, he saw a booming city. Industry was thriving and some people were getting very rich. At the other end of the scale there was huge poverty. Many women unable to look after their children were simply abandoning them. Moved by their plight Thomas Coram decided to do something about it but needed a Royal Charter for his plans to work. For seventeen years he worked tirelessly getting enough signatures together for King George III to consider and then grant the charter.

Thomas Coram statue

Finding Family 17 March – 27 August 2023

Finding Family looks at the idea of what makes a family through art from the 17th Century to the present day. On show will be three iconic masterpieces from the Gallery’s collection, by Hogarth, Gainsborough and the Le Nain Brothers. Alongside objects from the museums collection and paintings by contemporary artists including work created especially for the show.

Foundling Museum: Need to Know


Foundling Museum London


  1. November 23, 2018 / 11:21 am

    What a remarkable building and history. I am not surprised it took a handful of women to get the job done in granting the Royal Charter. I’d be interested to know what happened to the children. I hope they had happy lives. #FarawayFiles

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:12 pm

      The children were trained in trades, the hospital did helped them find positions in the outside world when they grew up.

  2. November 24, 2018 / 6:36 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, but admit it made be sad to read about 225+ years of homeless children. Incredibly Heartbreaking, but the work they did and continue to do is also inspiring. I admit I’m having a tough time putting how I feel about this into words. Thank you so much for sharing on #farawayfiles

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:11 pm

      Sorry to upset you, but it is the most wonderful place

      • November 27, 2018 / 3:49 pm

        Ha ha! It seems
        Like it! I wasn’t upset exactly, but definitely got me thinking! I really enjoyed it!

  3. November 25, 2018 / 9:18 am

    I remember really enjoying visiting this museum quite a while ago pre-kids as I studied Hogarth at uni. However, I think I might struggle now as a mother! #FarawayFiles

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:10 pm

      Those little tokens do pull at the heart strings

  4. November 25, 2018 / 9:59 pm

    Another one for my list! Thanks, Catherine. Informative and inspiring as always.

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:10 pm

      Always keen to keep your list well stocked

  5. pigeonpairandme
    November 26, 2018 / 11:34 am

    It really is so sad, to think of those women driven to leave their babies behind. This place must be unique in its history of art and charity working in tandem on such a hands-on level.

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:09 pm

      Heartbreaking stories but also heart warming ones too.

    • November 27, 2018 / 12:09 pm

      A sad story but good that somebody tried to do something to make the children’s lives better

  6. kirstenhesketh1
    November 28, 2018 / 6:15 pm

    What a fascinating place. Those little tokens are heartbreaking, aren’t they? x

    • November 28, 2018 / 7:04 pm

      They are, especially as the ones that remain all represent an unclaimed child.

  7. December 14, 2018 / 10:04 am

    I could sit for hours in that Handel room, listening to music. It’s a gem of a museum, unsurprisingly, full of babes in arms! #CULTUREDKIDS

  8. December 14, 2018 / 10:05 am

    The tokens are some of my favourite museum objects, so moving and humbling to see them. Makes me realise how privileged I am as a parent that I’ve never been faced with such heartbreaking decisions, despite having experienced homelessness myself as a mum.

    We have many happy memories from the Foundling Museum, my daughter has met Jacqueline Wilson there twice, and won a signed book and a special Nick Barrett print, which is still up in her room. #CulturedKids

  9. December 14, 2018 / 8:52 pm

    I’ve never heard of this museum. Fascinating and heartbreaking in equal measures #CulturedKids

  10. December 16, 2018 / 9:55 pm

    The first children’s charity! Some heartwarming stories here but desperately sad too. Thanks for the post, I’m definitely going to visit for myself now.

  11. December 19, 2018 / 8:44 pm

    Ah wow Catherine have never heard of this place, I must go with my 5 years old! What a history, perseverance of women and artists to look after the most fragile and unfortunate! Wish Eastern Europe had such visionaries and fighters! And such a great reminder of how lucky and blessed we are! #CulturedKids

  12. December 20, 2018 / 11:30 am

    So I Freudianly read your title as the fondling museum and was suitably bemused! Reading glasses now on! What a fascinating place and an incredible history of child homelessness. Wild wishes for a very happy Christmas #CulturedKids

    • December 20, 2018 / 12:57 pm

      I find the world without reading glasses to be a mystifying and slightly magical place!

  13. December 28, 2018 / 7:19 pm

    Thanks for the introduction to this museum Catherine – I’ve never heard of it before! Some very sobering stories but also tales of some wonderful human beings who did great work. #culturedkids

  14. April 13, 2019 / 5:03 am

    I wonder if there were children abandoned without a token at all? That would be even sadder. I hope they gave them pretend tokens so they didn’t know.

    • April 15, 2019 / 10:17 am

      Every child had a token, even it was only a rag

  15. April 13, 2019 / 12:01 pm

    I feel rubbish that I’d never heard of this museum despite living just round the corner for 6 months a while ago! I knew about Coram’s Fields which I could never go in as I didn’t have kids, but not the museum. Next time I’m in London I’d love to visit. Those tokens are heartbreaking.

    • April 13, 2019 / 12:03 pm

      Lucky you to live just round the corner, I love this part of London!

Share your thoughts

Substack sign up