What would you give to the person you love most, if you might never see them again? What if that person was your child?
When Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 it was a time of unimaginable destitution and poverty. Many unmarried mothers faced abandoning their infants by the roadside, having no means to shelter and feed them themselves. The Foundling Hospital provided hope that these children might survive and thousands of poor women deposited their newborn babies at the hospital.
Mothers were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Babies were renamed on admission and the tokens helped a returning mother to be reunited with the baby.
Between the 1740s and 1760s the procedure involved a swatch of fabric being cut from the baby’s clothes and then cut in half; one half was attached to the child’s admission paper on which was written the child’s unique admission number, while the other half was given to the mother. By keeping the swatch and remembering the date her baby was admitted, a mother could provide the Hospital with the information needed to identify the child.
However, in the event that the little piece of fabric was lost or the date of admission forgotten, mothers also left an object unique to them – a token – as a means of identification. These everyday items range from objects such as coins, medals and jewellery, to personalised items created for this purpose such as poems, needlework and inscribed medallions. Pennies are some of the most common tokens and these were frequently personalised with engravings, inscriptions and punctures to ensure they were not mistaken for another’s.
Once the admission information was taken the billet was folded up and sealed with the token inside, never to be opened unless a claim was made, meaning these little fragments of maternal hope were never seen by the children.
Beautiful and poignant, each scrap of material reflects the life of an infant child and that of its absent parent and tells an enthralling story about textiles, fashion, women’s skills, infant clothing and maternal emotion.
“Pray let particular care be taken of this little child,” read one note pinned to the clothing of little Florella Burley, born on June 19th, 1758.
The Foundling Hospital looked after these tokens, saving them through generations so that they can still be viewed today at the Foundling Museum in London. They form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th century.
The importance of the Foundling textiles – “5,000 rare, beautiful, mundane and moving scraps of fabric” – lies in the fact that so few pieces of eighteenth-century clothing have otherwise survived that can be identified with any confidence as having belonged to the poor. Ordinary people’s clothes were worn and re-worn by a succession of owners until they fell into rags, or they were cut up and reused for quilts, baby clothes, and the like. If, by chance, they outlived the eighteenth century, they were unlikely to excite the attention of collectors or museums.
Some of the fabrics are familiar – calico, flannel, gingham and satin – other are mysterious to us, opening up a lost world of camblet and fustian, susy and cherryderry, calimanco and linsey-woolsey. Almost a third of the fabrics in the collection are printed cottons and linens.
From the 1740s and 1750s British manufacturers had begun to produce moderately priced fabrics stamped with the flower and bird patterns beloved of the fashionable classes. While ladies of leisure wore Spitalfields silk carefully worked with elegant motifs, working-class girls could copy them with dresses made from stamped cotton. Unlike the fine silks, cotton prints could be washed without any danger of the dye running.
A third of the Foundling textiles consists of ribbons. Mostly made from silk, ribbons were a cheap way for a young woman to embellish a frock. Ribbons were also a symbol of romantic courtship, especially in their role as fairings, the gifts exchanged between lovers at fairs and holidays.
Of the 16,282 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed!
Founded during the ‘Golden Age of Philanthropy’ notable Govenors at the Hospital included the composer Handel who often performed free concerts at Hospital benefits raising huge sums of money, and the artist and famed satirist William Hogarth.
When the first 60 children entered the Foundling Hospital in 1740, Hogarth donated £120 of his own money and a magnificent painting of Captain Coram. Full length portraits were normally reserved for the nobility, so by devoting one to Thomas Coram, a sea captain from the merchant class.
Hogarth donated many more art works to the Hospital and encouraged the leading artists of the day, such as Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, to do the same. So began the Foundling Hospital Art Collection, England’s first public gallery which attracted a daily crowd of spectators and raised valuable funds for the children.
Many of the works were displayed in the Hospital dining room, so that the children could benefit from them. Hogarth served on the Hospital’s Court of Governors and General Committee, and designed its coat of arms and uniforms for the children to wear.
His commitment to children extended into his home life, too. With his wife, Jane, he invited children to visit his house, and supervised local wet-nurses (the closest thing to foster carers in those days), an idea ahead of its time.
Music recitals, art displays and needy children ensured that wealthy, fashionable patrons of charities and the arts flocked to the Hospital events, keen to flaunt their cultural eminence for a charitable cause.
An interesting site to visit is FOUNDLING VOICESwhich preserves the memories of 74 former foundlings in audio interviews.
One of the most poignant of all is the story of Margaret Larney. Under sentence of death in Newgate Prison in 1757, Margaret, falsely tried and found guilty of counterfeiting money, wrote a letter requesting the admission of her unborn child to the Foundling Hospital. Her newborn son was lucky and was admitted. Margaret was less fortunate. Immediately after the birth, she was taken to Tyburn where she was executed by “strangulation and burning”!
Images in this article are the copyright of the Foundling Museuem
If you have enjoyed today’s blog post you might like to sign up for our newsletter and receive future posts via email.
Subscribing is easy just fill in your email address in the box at the top right hand side of this page. Don’t forget to add us to your contact list so the newsletters go into your inbox rather than spam.
We will never share your details.
- See more at: https://hands-across-the-sea-samplers.com/?page_id=53#sthash.xEn6RgPf.dpuf