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Suffer little children

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Coram established a hospital to help dead, dying and abandoned babies. Today, the Foundling Hospital museum provides a backdrop for citizenship lessons. Carolyn O'Grady reports

A dozen pupils from Morpeth secondary school in London, are standing around a huge oval table. At one end stands another pupil looking miserable and desperate. The room they are in is ornate, decorated in the rococo style in blue and white and hung with old masters. It speaks of wealth and power, and its title, the Court Room, tells the same story.

It's a backdrop at odds with the scene which is being played out in it. The student looking desperate is playing the part of a petitioner to the Foundling Hospital during the mid-18th century. She's pleading for a home for her infant whom she can't keep for reasons of poverty.

The round-the-table students are hospital governors, and the decision they are making is of life or death. After listening to her petition they question the mother about her circumstances and she leaves. Another petitioner enters and reads his plea; the process is repeated and finally the "governors" have to decide the fate of the two infant candidates.

Will the baby stay at the hospital to be well provided for, or be forsaken to a life of poverty or abandonment and almost certain death? It's a difficult decision and one the students discuss intensely.

The Years 7 to 11 pupils from the Tower Hamlets school are taking part in a secondary school drama and theatre workshop organised by the Foundling Museum with the National Theatre education department. It is designed to support citizenship teaching.

"It made it really personal. I felt emotional when I had to give up my baby," says Jessica, 13, of the experience. "It must have been nerve-wracking to go in front of all those rich people," says Ruby, 12.

The plight of foundlings in the 18th century and the role of the Foundling Hospital has received particular attention recently with the staging of Coram Boy at the National Theatre. The workshops are followed by a visit to the play, which is based on the book of the same name written for young adults, by Jamila Gavin.

The hospital was created in 1739 by Thomas Coram, a shipwright and sailor, who returned to England to retire after living in the United States.

Shocked by the sight of dead, dying and abandoned babies and children in the streets of London, he worked for 20 years to establish a place of refuge. The hospital moved in the 1920s, and the museum was established near the original site containing a reconstruction of the original ornate court room.

It's an intriguing tale, told vividly at the museum, with some unlikely participants. The painter William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel were both supporters of the hospital. Exhibits relating to these men are housed in the museum.

During a tour pupils play "the lottery game", which illustrates the ballot the hospital was forced to introduce when the number of petitioners exceeded places, and see tokens left by mothers to enable them to reclaim their children should circumstances change. They role-play the court room scene and enter the gallery where paintings of the hospital's great and good are hung. Crispin Letts, who is running the workshop, asks what they have in common: "They're all men," is the reply; which leads to a discussion on the place of women in society.

The group descends into the museum's bright education room for drama activities. Suddenly Crispin becomes a martinet: "Wash your hands"; "make your beds"; "wash out the cowshed," he barks, as children scurry back and forth obeying him, getting a taste of the harshness of the Coram Hospital regime, which was strict, but an improvement on the conditions in which they might have found themselves.

Finally, the groups lie on the floor as Crispin leads them through an imaginative exploration of the lives of first the poor and then the rich.

"There was a lot on cultural diversity, respect and power. It enabled the students to have an opportunity to justify opinions about issues and problems, especially regarding human rights and responsibilities underpinning society," says Jill Moore, Morpeth teacher and citizenship co-ordinator.'Coram Boy' finishes at the National Theatre in February, but the Foundling Hospital intends to continue workshops with the NT

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