8th Holborn and Coram’s Fields

8th Holborn Scouts started in the week that Scouting for Boys appeared as a weekly magazine in January 1908. Local children gathered on Guilford Street outside Coram’s Fields, and enthusiastically asked the newsagent to become their first Leader and for him to request permission to go inside the grounds of the Foundling Hospital. Shortly afterwards, with makeshift uniforms and a weekly programme of outdoor games in the front garden of the hospital they also managed to gain access to the swimming pool at the rear of the hospital and then, as winter approached, to use an indoor hall. As well as its original mission for orphans, destitute and abandoned children, since Captain Thomas Coram set up the Hospital in 1735, and then in 1742 acquired the land on Lamb’s Conduit Field, the hospital trustees had also allowed local children, with permission, to play in the grounds. 

The uncles of Jack Olden, a formidable Scout and Scout Leader at 8th Holborn, and later at national level in Scouting, were among the founders of the Group. So on the 100th anniversary of 8th Holborn (and Scouting) Jack himself was able to walk around and show some of those early amenities at the Coram’s site. He himself was a “latecomer”, joining the Cubs at age 8 in 1931, going on to star in Ralph Reader’s famous “Gang Show” in the West End, becoming a Queen Scout, receiving the Scout Silver Cross award for gallantry in pulling people out of a burning building during wartime in Russell Square, and then becoming an RAF pilot of a Sunderland Flying Boat in the Second World War. A memorable occasion with Jack was when he showed enthralled Scouts around a Sunderland at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford.

But when the Foundling Hospital decided to sell up and relocate, first to a former convent in Redhill, Surrey and then to Berkhampsted in Hertfordshire, 8th Holborn faced an existential crisis. Over local protests the nine acre Foundling site was sold to a speculative property developer and then began a long fight to rescue Coram’s Fields. Local residents formed an ad hoc “Foundling Estate Protection Association” but faced with an asking price of £700,000 hope was ebbing. Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere, tried to beat the price down to £525,000 but this was rejected and the building works commenced, by driving two roadways into the site. It was then that 8th Holborn Scouts galvanised, particularly with Mrs Bedford, the formidable wife of the local Vicar of St George the Martyr Church, who was the “Akela”. Starting off by collecting, literally, pennies from Scout families and others in the community she then launched the somewhat ungainly titled “Joint Committee of Voluntary Associations for the Welfare of Children and Young People (Foundling Site)” in January 1929.  It had representatives from the Scouts, Guides, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, nursery schools and children’s play centres, as well as concerned local people from the community. Few thought the campaign could possibly succeed in raising what was then the likely gigantic sum suggested by the property developer. It took over three years of colossal concerted effort. A particular achievement, which is not to be underestimated, was that she persuaded Cecil Harmsworth, later Lord Harmsworth, to purchase a holding option in April 1929 for this Committee to purchase the site at the £525,000 sum earlier proposed. But of course the money then had to be found.

In order to raise awareness the Committee opened the grounds at Coram’s Fields to the general public in August 1929. It was reported that there were nearly 3,000 local children in attendance and that “many had never run about on grass before”. The London County Council announced a grant of £500 to kick off the fundraising and Queen Mary made the first of three visits in support of the campaign. Nevertheless the target still seemed impossible, particularly at a time of economic depression. But the Committee battled on, and by the end of April 1931 a average of £2,000 per week was being collected, with contributions coming from all over the world, as well as Scouts, Guides and local schoolchildren carrying on with their “penny collections”. One newspaper report showed that “6,880 subscriptions, in all denominations, from a penny to £25,000, have been received from almost every country in the world. Schoolchildren and old-age pensioners have brought their pennies. Subscriptions have been repeated up to five, six and seven times.” A set of iconic postcards entitled “Save the Foundling Site” was issued by Raphael Tuck & Sons showing happy children playing in the open spaces. And then as an incentive for the final stretch, Lord Rothermere continued the Harmsworth connection, by promising a gift of £50,000 if the appeal was successful.

It was an immense struggle, but as noted in the Marylebone Mercury of 18 June 1932 a fête organised by the Scouts and Guides on the previous weekend raised the final £750 which secured the remaining balance on the purchase of Coram’s Fields; “the numerous sideshows amply fulfilled their object of extracting coppers…” Tidying up operations continued for some time, particularly when the vendors tried to renege on the holding option and upped the price. Fortunately, in April 1933 a prominent politician and land developer, Sir Harry Mallaby-Deeley, stepped in and purchased the entire Foundling estate, including the still unsaved northern part, consisting of buildings beyond the open spaces. Sir Harry himself promised a donation of £36,250, leaving £150,000 to be raised through yet another ‘Final Appeal’ launched in February 1934 for the full site. By now the end was in sight. The London County Council made another grant and, somewhat surprisingly, the Governors of the Foundling Hospital stepped in to repurchase the northern area for child welfare work. Only in December 1935 was it clear that the long struggle to save the entirety  of the old Foundling Hospital Site for the children of London was over.

How many anniversaries do you need to celebrate? The open spaces of the park were officially “re-opened” on 21 July 1936 under the new name of Coram’s Fields by the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth. But for the Scouts of 8th Holborn the first key date is 24 January 1908 when Robert Baden-Powell’s initial instalment of “Scouting for Boys” launched worldwide Scouting, both outside in Guilford Street and then well beyond the gates of Coram’s Fields. Then that pivotal moment of 11 June 1932 when the Scout fête at Coram’s Fields raised more than enough to pay the final balance for the purchase of what is a local and national institution, with its iconic signage that “no adult can enter without a child”. The continuing involvement of the Harmsworth family was also acknowledged, when on 18 July 1979, and after major refurbishment at Coram’s Fields, Viscountess Rothermere “re-opened” the “headquarters” of 8th Holborn Scouts, as recorded in the plaque below.

Although Coram’s Fields technically became the official headquarters of 8th Holborn Scouts in 1932, a newspaper cutting of 1937 shows that Scouts intended to share their headquarters with all other Scouts and Cubs, with an open invitation by another redoubtable 8th Holborn Leader J.F. “Ko Ko” Colquhoun to “let him know if Coram’s Fields Headquarters can be of use”. Even more selflessly, and knowing that weekly meetings of the Scouts and Guides would only take up an evening or so every week, the founding Council of Management at Coram’s Fields in constructing a trust in December 1935 made it clear in the official “Objects” that Coram’s Fields “shall be held in trust for use as a perpetual open space for such purposes primarily in connection with (the education of children and young persons under the age of 18”. The Boy Scouts Association and the Girl Guides’ Association, and successor organisations, retained their direct representatives for many years and of course their presence today remains as a key part of the work of volunteers for the local community. Over one hundred girls and boys are currently involved in Scouting and Guiding at Coram’s Fields. While changes are made constitutionally from time to time, notably in the Deed of Variation of 7 September 2016, there has never been any change in the original “Objects”. And as that 2016 Deed makes clear in paragraph 14.2.1 “a proper fee at full market value shall be charged where the purposes for which the facilities are being made available do not fall within the Objects” – but clearly not otherwise.

Further Reading:

Notes on the Foundling Site Appeal 1929-1936 issued by the Council of Management of Coram’s Fields.

The Foundling Hospital from Old & New London by George Walter Thornbury and Edward Walford (1897)

They included images of boys playing football…