Knight Errant of the Distressed: Horace Walpole and Philanthropy in Eighteenth-Century London

Background on Charity: Hospitals and Schools

George Vertue
Tabula exhibens puellos in scholis eleemosynariis educatos. The View of the Charity Children in the Strand, upon the VI of July, MDCCXII 
Etching and engraving on two separate sheets
London [?]: Publisher not identified, 1715
Drawer 715.000.00.03 Impression 1

George Vertue’s panoramic engraving shows the assembly of London’s charity schoolchildren (puellos in scholis eleemosynariis educatos”) held in the Strand to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Later in the century, charity schoolchildren took part in an annual procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral, depicted most famously in William Blake’s two “Holy Thursday” poems, one supportive and one critical of charity. In 1719 London had 130 charity schools containing 3,201 boys and 1,953 girls, supported by £5,281 in voluntary subscriptions and a further £4,391 in church collections.

view of the grounds of the Castle Park in Colchester with tents erected for the celebration of the anniversary of the Sunday school

The Sunday School Children of Colchester
Aquatint and etching
Colchester: Published by I. Marsden, October 1, 1797

The Sunday School movement to educate poor children, associated with the philanthropist Robert Raikes (1736–1811), was a major societal development in eighteenth-century Britain. This 1797 image depicts Sunday School children in the grounds of Castle Park, Colchester, Essex. The children form orderly queues to be served food from specially erected booths, while members of the middling sort and well-to-do stroll on the lawns, no doubt to observe the conduct of the objects of their charity.

View of students and buildings at a Naval School

Jonas Hanway
Proposal for County Naval Free-schools
London: Publisher not identified, 1783
Quarto 659 783H

Jonas Hanway (1712–1786) was a leading philanthropist whom Walpole referred to as “one of the apostles of humanity” (HW to Michael Lort, July 5, 1789, HWC 16:217). Among his numerous philanthropic endeavors, Hanway founded the Marine Society in 1756 to train poor boys for service at sea, thus saving them from a life of crime and indolence. In this plan, published in 1783, Hanway proposed the establishment of fifty naval schools for boys aged twelve and above. The scheme proved overly ambitious and never materialized.

2 men overlooking a procession of small, orphaned children

Lady Diana Beauclerk
The Mysterious Mother (Act 2d, Scene 2d), 1776
Ink and soot water
SH Contents B373 no. 1 ++ Box 300

One of seven “soot water” paintings (made from bistre, a shade of brown made from soot) created by Lady Diana Beauclerk (1734–1808) to illustrate Walpole’s incest tragedy, The Mysterious Mother: A Tragedy (composed 1766–68), which was never performed. The image shows the procession of orphans from Act II, Scene 2 of the play, which evokes the annual procession of charity schoolchildren through the streets of London. Walpole prized the paintings very highly and housed them in the purpose-built Beauclerk Closet at Strawberry Hill.

View of a hospital building, countryside in the background and people in the foreground.

Nathaniel Parr after L.P. Boitard
A View of the Foundling Hospital
Etching and engraving
London: Printed for R. Sayer, January 1753
Topos L847 no.27+

The Foundling Hospital, the creation of Thomas Coram (ca. 1668–1751) and established by Royal Charter in 1739, was the doyen of London’s philanthropic organizations. Designed to take in and educate abandoned children, it was also a pioneer of fundraising methods and a place of fashionable resort: witness the carriage entering at the front gate. George Frideric Handel conducted yearly benefit concerts of The Messiah for the hospital; and William Hogarth, Joseph Highmore, and Francis Hayman all donated paintings to its magnificent collection. The foundlings themselves, who were often renamed after donors, eventually became apprentices or maidservants.

view of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, with the river in the foreground, swans and boats dotted on the water

Thomas Bowles
A View of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea & the Rotunda in Ranelaigh Gardens
Etching, hand-colored
London: Printed and sold by Robert Sayer, ca. 1751
Topos L847 no. 15+

England in the seventeenth century felt itself deficient in public hospitals such as the splendid examples found across France, Italy, and Spain. Charles II commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design the Royal Hospital for retired soldiers in emulation of Les Invalides in Paris. It opened in 1692. Bowles’s print shows the hospital from the River Thames crowded with watercraft, as visitors flock to the well-tended formal gardens. The Rotunda in Ranelagh Gardens appears on the right.

front view of hospital building

Sutton Nicholls
Guys Hospital for Incurables
Etching and engraving
London: Printed by W. Innys and J. Richardson, etc., 1754
Topos L847 no. 36+

Guy’s Hospital in Southwark was founded in 1724 by Thomas Guy (1644–1724), a bookseller turned philanthropist who had made a fortune through his investments in the South Sea Company. On his death, Guy endowed the hospital with a colossal legacy of £219,499, the largest philanthropic donation of the age. Guy’s Hospital initially cared for patients (“incurables”) discharged from nearby St Thomas’s Hospital. Guy’s still operates and has recently announced a review into its founder’s connections with the slave trade.

Coat-of-arms with a naked child, a lamb holding a sprig of thyme as the crest,

After William Hogarth
Ticket for a performance to benefit the Foundling Hospital, May 24, 1759
State 2
Etching and engraving
London: Publisher not identified
Kinnaird 72K(d) Box 115

Hogarth’s powerful design for the Foundling Hospital’s coat of arms (created 1747) places a naked child at the center above the simple motto “HELP.” At the crest is a lamb, symbolizing Christ, bearing a sprig of thyme, while the figures of Nature (dexter) and Britannia (sinister) act as supporters. Hogarth was a founding governor and subscriber at the Foundling and donated numerous paintings to the charity, which were placed on permanent public display to attract visitors and donors.

View of the grand new building for Bethlem Hospital, from the street; figures in foreground including street traders and a man with a wooden leg

Thomas Bowles after John Mauer
The Hospital of Bethlehem
Etching and engraving
London: Printed for Bowles & Carver and Robert Wilkinson, ca. 1800
Topos L847 no. 6+ Box 8

Bethlehem, or Bethlem or Bedlam, Hospital for the mentally ill was one of London’s medieval charities, founded in 1247 and reconstituted in Edward IV’s reign after the Reformation. It relocated to Moorfields in the vast building shown here, designed by Robert Hooke, in 1676. Bedlam has been criticized for allowing members of the public to view the patients, but this practice was typical of eighteenth-century philanthropic organizations. Above the front gate were figures of Melancholia and Raving Madness sculpted by Caius Cibber.