Life in old England's streets

11th April 2003 at 01:00
Georgian Underworld: The Man Who Saved Children. Channel 4, April 17, 9-10pm

Robin Buss takes a look at the underbelly of existence in the 18th century

Coram's Fields, a little park near Gray's Inn Road in London, commemorates one of the most remarkable figures of 18th-century England, whose life is the subject of the first documentary in the Channel 4 season, Georgian Underworld.

Thomas Coram's story is one of hope and despair. He was a retired shipbuilder who devoted himself to finding a solution to the problem of unwanted children. In an age when there was no reliable birth control and little sympathy for the pregnant servant or working-class mother, children were often abandoned on the streets, or killed at birth. Coram set out not only to rescue some of these infants, but also to change the attitude of society towards them.

This was no easy task, since it was widely assumed that relieving improvident mothers of their children would simply cause them to have more, "discourage matrimony", and "be a promotion of wickedness", according to critics at the time. Royal assent was needed for the creation of the first foundling hospital, and it took Coram 17 years to obtain the necessary charter. He did so eventually by appealing to the charitable impulses of society ladies and approaching George II through Queen Caroline.

When the hospital did open, in 1741, it was swamped with applications.

Mothers often left their babies with tokens - a broken coin, a jewel, a locket. These survive in the hospital museum because, as a matter of policy, they were never given to the children concerned. Attitudes towards children may have been changing, but they still had a long way to go.

So did medical knowledge. Many of Coram's children died because of poor diet; it took some time for the hospital governors to consider paying wet nurses, rather than feeding infants with a mixture of liquid and solid foods. In fact, the hospital probably contributed towards the advancement of medicine, but by a pretty crude form of trial and error. Nonetheless, the children of 18th-century London faced better odds in Coram's care than on the streets.

Life on those streets is the subject of other programmes in the series.

Invitation to a Hanging (April 24, 9-10.30pm), tells the fascinating story of Jack Sheppard, the young apprentice who became one of the stars of his age thanks to his audacious prison escapes, until his luck ran out and he had to keep an appointment at Tyburn (the first permanent gallows, set up in 1571), in November 1724. Bare Knuckle Boxer (May 1, 7-8pm), recalls the career of Bill Richmond, the black champion who took on the celebrated Tom Cribb, at a time when boxing was illegal and fights went on until one fighter dropped.

The Peterloo Massacre (May 4, 9-10.30pm) takes us forward to 1819 and reconstructs the inquest into the death of a victim of the killings in St Peter's Fields, Manchester. The season ends with Queer as 18th-century Folk (May 8, 9-10pm), an investigation into gay culture in the period, including clear evidence - from the mid-19th-century, as it happens - that lesbian sex was not unknown in earlier times.

Each of the films, which can be seen separately, uses dramatic reconstruction and expert commentary to tell its story and bring out the significance of what it describes. Invitation to a Hanging, while occasionally gruesome in parts, has a lot to tell us in general about crime and punishment in 18th-century London. Did you know, for example, that nearly half of those executed at Tyburn in the first quarter of the 18th century were apprentices? These young men, indentured for many years to their masters and expected to work without pay, were considered a hooligan class. Jack Sheppard himself was raised in the workhouse (in the days before Coram's Foundling Hospital), and then apprenticed to a carpenter; he spent all his short life within the City of London.

Bill Richmond, son of a slave, eventually became the proprietor of a gymnasium frequented by Lord Byron, and provided one of the earliest examples of boxing as a means of social and material advancement.

Even though this is history from the underside - and with a bias towards the poor, the dispossessed, the persecuted and the despised - it has a good deal to tell us about an exciting period of English life, as well as disproving the statement by the young radical lawyer in the Peterloo film that the victims of the massacre were among "the losers of history", destined to be covered up and forgotten.

And what of Thomas Coram? Sadly, he was voted off the board of the institution he had founded and died in poverty, at the age of 83, having no children of his own to look after him.

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