Playing on the site of the word’s first incorporated charity, in London’s first public children’s playground
It seems fitting that in a week when even more allegations have surfaced in the ongoing Jimmy Savile scandal, we should take a moment to consider the legacy of someone who worked tirelessly to advance the cause of deprived and abused children: Thomas Coram.
On October 17th, 1739 the erstwhile sea captain and lifelong philanthropist was granted a Royal Charter by King George II to establish a “hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.”
It was the culmination of a 17-year crusade. After a life at sea, Coram had returned to England a rich man, intending to retire in comfort. However, he was so appalled by the numbers of children left to die on the streets of London that he took up cudgels on their behalf.
The first abandoned babies were admitted to Coram’s Foundling Hospital in 1741 and were housed in Hatton Garden while a brand new building was constructed in Lamb’s Conduit Fields, Bloomsbury. Opened in 1745, the new hospital was a plain brick building set around an open courtyard, and it attracted high-profile supporters such as William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel.
Today, thanks to some architectural vandalism in the 1920s, all that remains of the Foundling Hospital buildings are the elegant, single-storey Georgian colonnades. They now house a city farm, children’s play centre, cafe, community nursery and youth centre. In the centre is a wide open park and playspace.
The site is the product of lengthy campaigning and fundraising by local people who, with the suppport of the LCC and Viscount Rothermere, preserved the nine-acre site for future generations of children. Renamed Coram’s Fields in 1936, it was London’s first public children’s playground.
Today, Coram’s Fields is a beautiful oasis of calm right in the centre of London. As well as the nursery and youth centre there are free (yes, that’s free) weekday sports programmes for children aged from 6 to 19, including a girls’ club aimed at getting more girls involved in sports.
If you’ve never been, take the kids and spend the day there. There are clean loos, and you can grab a cup of tea or a bite to eat at the vegetarian cafe, Kipferl (open from 10am to 5pm, March to November). Or take a picnic and sit on the grass while the kids practice their scooting on the wide paths.
The park is open all year round from 9am until dusk, and entry is free for children and young people under 16. Adults are only admitted if they’re with a child (sorry, students and office workers, but you’ll have to eat your lunchtime sarnies elsewhere), and friendly on-site staff ensure that everyone can enjoy their visit.
There are two large playgrounds in Coram’s Fields, both of which have accessible play equipment for children of all ages. The one nearest the cafe is suitable for younger children, with smaller climbing structures and sand and/or water toys.
The adventure playground next to the city farm has some fantastic acoustic features and two aerial slides, or zip wires, which means that kids can race each other.
In the summer the grassed areas in the middle are full of families, but on a wintry weekend morning you can often find you’ve got the playgrounds to yourselves for the first hour or so.
If you’re looking for a fun, educational and cheap day out in Central London with the kids, try combining a trip to Coram’s Fields with a visit to a museum
Bloomsbury has an embarrassment of riches, after all.
Head over to The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square to discover more about Thomas Coram and his hospital. Foundling Hospital patron Charles Dickens lived around the corner and, while the Charles Dickens House is currently closed for refurbishment (it’s due to reopen in December 2012), you can still take part in Dickens Walks every Wednesday.
Dickens’ relationship with the Foundling Museum is explored in the current exhibition, Received, a Blank Child: Dickens, Brownlow and the Foundling Hospital. The London Historians’ Blog calls it “well-curated, thoughtful and moving.”
TVClaw Top Tip: in situ only until October 22nd, the Phantom Railings interactive sound installation in Malet Street Gardens is a fantastic piece of public art. Using sensor-based acoustic devices the installation recreates the sound produced by running a stick along an iron fence. It’s brilliant! Run, don’t walk, to experience it before it disappears.