fri 14/06/2024

Jamila Gavin: Writing Coram Boy | reviews, news & interviews

Jamila Gavin: Writing Coram Boy

Jamila Gavin: Writing Coram Boy

As the Bristol Old Vic revives a modern children's stage classic, the author of the award-winning book explains the story's genesis

Music, friendship, laughter and tragedy: 'Coram Boy' at the Bristol Old Vic in rehearsal Rehearsal photographs by Marc Douet

Someone told me that the highways and byways of England were littered with the bones of little children. It was a shocking statement and of course I asked, “What do you mean?” I was told that abandoned children were a common feature of the past, but that in the 18th century someone called a “Coram Man” used to wander about from village to village and town to town – a bit like a tinker – picking up unwanted children.

But who was this Coram Man?” No one seemed to know. With only the name “Coram” to go on, I trawled through the London telephone directory and came across the Coram Foundation in London which had been founded in 1741 by Captain Thomas Coram, as a “Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children”. In this way I came into contact with the most incredible and inspiring account of how Captain Coram had been so upset and disgusted at stumbling over the bodies of abandoned infants that he set about creating a place of refuge for them. This was to become one of the great causes célèbres of the day and I knew how probable it was that, because of mothers desperate to put their unwanted or illegitimate children into a safe haven, they could be duped by unscrupulous characters. With false promises, blackmail and extortion, money could be made out of their plight with no intention of delivering these babies into safety, let alone the now famous Coram Hospital.

Even before I had researched the historical evidence for Coram, a story was unfolding. Characters sprang into my head: Alexander Asbrook, the son of an aristocrat who had such a passion to be a musician that he runs away from home and his inheritance; Thomas, the poor son of a carpenter, yet a friend of Alexander’s at the Choir School in the Cathedral; Melissa, a poor relation of the Ashbrooks, has her baby given away to the Coram Man by her mother, to save them from shame and destitution. There was the Coram Man himself who I named Otis Gardener, and his simpleton son Meshak, fixated by an angel who, in many ways, is at the heart of the story, and Aaron, the baby Meshak rescues and takes to the Coram Hospital. Here Aaron grows up with his best friend, Toby, taken from a slave ship on its way from Africa to the Americas. Black people were by no means rare in England, especially the dock areas of London, Bristol or Gloucester. The slave trade was at its peak and, although slaves were not kept in England, there were many who worked either in the grand houses or in the trades and businesses of the towns and cities. Young black boys were often treasured as mascots for army units or as young page boys – at best treated like pet dogs, at worst suffering great abuse – as so many children did, whatever their colour. And then there was George Fredric Handel.

In his effort to find patrons and benefactors, Captain Coram approached many artists and musicians for their support, among them Handel, who had just composed his Messiah. A performance was given in aid of this new charity, and Handel gave his permission for Coram to perform Messiah every year from then on as a benefit. What a gift that was to me, and it went into the book – and the play.

I tended to research as I wrote, looking up facts and details from books about the 18th century as I went along. I also looked at the vast number of paintings and prints which portrayed the period – especially William Hogarth – another friend and patron of the Coram Hospital, who especially depicted the cruel and desperate side of the 18th century.

In a brutal and callous society, Captain Coram was a shining light, who set a yardstick and brought some humanity to the welfare of destitute children. My story, though fictitious, nonetheless touches on a truth both about the reality of those times; not just the corruption at every level, but also about those who cared and tried to change things. Helen Edmundson, in her adaptation of Coram Boy, brilliantly weaves all these aspects into the play, giving us music, friendship, laughter and tragedy – everything that theatre should be.

  • Bristol Old Vic's Coram Boy directed by Melly Still is at Colston Hall from 22 to 30 December, featuring a full chorus and a live orchestra
Captain Coram approached many artists and musicians for their support, among them Handel, who had just composed his Messiah. What a gift. It went into the book - and the play

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