Feeding the 400 exhibition at London's Foundling Museum

Foundling boys carrying spotted dick at summer camp © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Foundling boys carrying spotted dick at summer camp © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

I just love the photo above. Every time I look at it I smile - the sheer unbridled joy of the boys taking delight in being outside reminds me of my own kids when we don our wellies and head to the woods. Or swap them for wet suits and go rock-pooling on the beach. Also, the boys are carrying enormous spotted dicks in trays - which just strikes me as amusing! (A spotted dick is a very British traditional fruity sponge pudding in case you're wondering what I'm on about).

However, there's a serious story to the photo. The boys were Foundlings - children whose parents couldn't look after them so entrusted them to London's Foundling Hospital to bring them up. Many of the children - but by no means all - were reunited with their parents at a later date when their situation improved. The photo was taken when the children were away on a summer camp, which gave them a chance to relax, eat outdoors and be less formal.

I was invited to the Foundling Museum - a 1930s building on the site of the original 18th century hospital - to see their Feeding the 400 exhibition - a fascinating and myth-busting insight into the history of how and what these children were fed.

The Foundling Hospital was founded by Thomas Coram in 1739 to care for babies who were at risk of abandonment. As you can see from the picture below, in the Victorian period the dining was much more formal. On Sundays the hospital was opened up for the public - mostly its middle class benefactors - to visit and to see the children eating their Sunday dinner, complete with table cloths, metal cutlery and china plates. The hospital was extremely strict about manners. The children weren't allowed to talk at all during their meal and they even had to take care to use their cutlery quietly. If you have kids of your own you'll understand that getting them to use cutlery at all, let alone quietly, can be a challenge! As for no talking - well I know a certain young lady who would find this impossible!

Joseph Swain, Sunday at the Foundling Hospital, c1872 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Joseph Swain, Sunday at the Foundling Hospital, c1872 © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

To a modern palate the food the Foundlings were given might sound unappetising - boiled meat, rice pudding, gruel, suet pudding and bread. Poultry was considered too expensive, as was roasted meat. The Foundlings were however, served three meals a day and given full fat milk (although there was a scandal when it was discovered that the dairy had been delivering skimmed milk for 20 years!). If you compared their diet with that of an average London child of the same time you'd find it to be far superior in terms of both quality and quantity. 

Many of the children helped out in the Hospital's kitchen garden several times a week as you can see in the photo below. At the exhibition you can see a list of vegetables ordered by the kitchen in 1937 - the list includes peas, beans, cucumbers, lettuces, tomatoes and greens.

Boys in the kitchen garden at the Foundling Hospital, London © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

Boys in the kitchen garden at the Foundling Hospital, London © Coram in the care of the Foundling Museum

If you fancy finding out more about the Foundling's diets or perhaps trying out one of the Hospital's original recipes such as soup, bread, gruel, boiled beef or, of course, spotted dick you can get the recipes here. 

I like the sound of the Governor's Gruel which contains pearl barley, water, currants, egg yolks wine or sherry, cream, lemon and brown sugar. This sounds far removed from what my brain automatically thinks of when it hears the word gruel!

The Feeding the 400 exhibition is on until 8 January 2017 at The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, London WC1N 1AZ. The museum is well worth a visit after this time too as its permanent collection is well displayed and fascinating too. (And there's a nice cafe on site too!). Find out more.