08/07/2015 18:57 BST | Updated 08/07/2016 06:59 BST

Pre (And Post?) Welfare State

I have a new favourite museum. Tucked away in a quiet little square in central London is a museum that tells the story of one of the most poignant social experiments borne of the industrial revolution - and that may have resonance for today.

The Foundling Hospital was opened in 1741 at a time when illegitimacy was shameful, when a thousand children were reckoned to be abandoned on the streets of London each year and when three-quarters of children died before the age of five.

The Britain of this period was fast becoming the world's economic super-power but had yet to work out how to care for its most vulnerable citizens. Extremes of wealth and poverty co-existed in its inner cities. Eighteenth century attitudes were generally cruel and laissez-faire. (Think of street children in Delhi or Rio. Moral values are relative to time and place. They shouldn't be but they are.)

Over the next two centuries, this children's home (the Hospital was not a 'hospital' in the modern sense) was to provide a sanctuary, albeit a harsh one, for thousands of children who might otherwise have remained destitute. Many graduated to a life in service - the armed services for boys, domestic service for girls. All were expected to feel - and most did - perpetual gratitude to the institution and its benefactors.

The beginnings of modern but pre-welfare state philanthropy - or a practical way of creating compliant model citizens? Either way, desperate women queued up in the hope of getting their babies admitted to the institution.

The Foundling Hospital closed in 1954 and the Coram children's charity - named after the institution's founder, Sir Thomas Coram - now concentrates on adoption and supporting vulnerable young people in a range of more 21st century ways.

But the Foundling Museum, opened in 2004 and standing on an adjacent site to the original Hospital, takes you back to the original project and to the lives of those early cared-for children. I've been spending a bit of time there recently because of a writing project. I'm a member of the writers' group 26 which paired 26 writers with 26 objects in the museum and tasked each of us with revealing something new about the object in exactly 62 words. Our words are currently exhibited next to our objects. (Among the 26 is one guest writer, Andrew Motion. I just had to get that in - though it goes without saying that his words are of a somewhat different calibre from mine.)

The museum is full of original documents and artefacts telling individual stories of loss and salvation and bearing witness to the often harsh existence in the institution. It's full too of works of art donated by prominent benefactors, Hogarth and Handel among them. High art and low life make for a disturbing combination.

And it can be difficult looking round knowing what we now know - not least, about the prevalence of child abuse in institutions. It's easy to be cynical. The 18th-century philanthropists - merchants, artists and aristocrats - may have dispensed largesse out of self-love rather than something better.

They clearly started something though - even if none of them could have predicted the Children Act or even the welfare state (let alone welfare reform....). The view that things should get inexorably better may have come unstuck in places. But with definitions of child poverty now shifting in Britain and socio-economic gaps growing, it's worth going to have a look at how it used to be.