In the last issue of our St Paul’s Newsletter I celebrated one of my heroes, the naturalist the Revd Gilbert White, Vicar of Selborne. I promised that I would share with you another of my heroes, also from the eighteenth-century, Captain Thomas Coram (the stress is on the first syllable). His name may not be so familiar to you, but he was immortalised in a fabulous portrait by William Hogarth. The figure is very plain. Captain Coram wears no wig or expensive clothes, but has his own wild white hair and rough clothes.
Why would the celebrated William Hogarth have painted such an exuberant portrait of an ordinary plain sea captain? Captain Thomas Coram did one of the most Christlike things a person could do. He saw a terrible need in eighteenth-century London to which others who considered themselves Christians turned a blind eye. In our day we were shocked to learn through the late Malcolm Muggeridge of an obscure Albanian nun who rescued babies abandoned in the streets and rubbish dumps of Calcutta. Through Muggeridge’s now famous BBC programme, Something Beautiful for God, Mother Teresa’s name is now famous throughout the whole world for goodness. Indeed, she was recently declared to be a saint.
Captain Thomas Coram, two hundred years earlier, did exactly the same in our own capital city. It is appalling to think that in a so-called Christian country only two hundred years ago babies were abandoned in the streets by their desperate mothers and there was no-one to help. Captain Coram’s heart was so moved to do something about these babies ‘found’ alone in our streets that he spent seventeen years cajoling the rich and famous to donate money to build a ‘Foundling Hospital’. Hogarth gave paintings and Handel put on fund-raising concerts in the chapel.
The building in Bloomsbury no longer stands but there is a museum on the site now called Coram’s Fields, which I strongly recommend you to visit. The saddest items are the tiny tokens, often just a key, a button or half a coin, left by the mothers in case they returned to reclaim their children. They rarely did.
Captain Coram was a rough, poorly educated person, but he had a big heart, and he gave his life to a truly Christian cause. It was scandalous that so recently babies were exposed in our streets to die. Thomas Coram was a truly great man who should be better known. The Thomas Coram Foundation for Children still exists to help youngsters with a poor start in life.
If Gilbert White served God by glorifying his creation in the world of nature, Thomas Coram followed Christ by helping ‘the least of these his brethren’. Christianity is as Christianity does. The Bible tells us that God is the helper of widows and orphans, the most vulnerable in the ancient world. If we were more like Thomas Coram, the world might see the point of Christianity.
May Christ use you as his hands in our society and bless you in his service.
Very sincerely Yours,