Caro Howell, Director of the Foundling Museum, talks about the eighteenth-century tokens; objects left by mothers who gave up their babies to the care of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity, which was founded in 1739 to take in babies who would otherwise have been abandoned on the streets
The tokens are extraordinary because they really speak to the ordinary lives of 18th century people.
I think the most abject token is a nut. Clearly for the mother this was all she could afford, all she could bring with her, but there’s also jewellery, handmade objects, playing cards, keys and lots of coins which have been customised.
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The tokens also include a season ticket to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a pass to the King’s Road which was a private road in the 18th century, a ticket to a public philosophy lecture, a pot of rouge, and a spyglass for the theatre.
They are fascinating objects in their own right, but they are also incredibly poignant because each one is infused with a sense of hope, because a mother wouldn’t leave a token unless she hoped that one day she could come back to claim her child.
From the very first admissions, the Hospital was completely overwhelmed in relation to the number of places they had available. So in 1742 they developed a lottery system. Mothers drew balls from a bag and the colour of the ball determined whether their baby had a place.
There was only one sure fire way of getting a child into the Foundling Hospital and bypassing the lottery system and that was with a donation of £100. It was a no questions asked policy, so it would have been a convenient way for a wealthy family to get rid of an illegitimate child.
“Some names are poetic, some are heart breaking.”
The children’s names were changed within about 24 hours of arriving at the Hospital and in the Museum there is a wall that lists some of the names they were given. Some were named after Governors – so we have a number named Thomas Coram (the founder of the Hospital) – and Eunice Coram, his wife. There are also William Hogarths and some historical characters like Geoffrey Chaucer, Julius Caesar and Walter Raleigh.
Some names are very poetic, some are heart breaking and some are frankly bizarre. One little child was christened Houghton Hall of all things, another was called East Street and another Hopegood Helpless.
The Hospital needed a system whereby if a mother’s situation changed and she was able to come back and claim her child, the staff could identify which child was hers, because it would no longer have the same name.
Every child was given a unique identification number on admission, which was worn around its neck at all times and that was the link between its past life and its new life. When babies arrived, a swatch of fabric was cut from their clothes and cut in half. Half was given to the mother and half was pinned to the child’s admission sheet.
All the mother needed to do was remember the date that she left her baby and bring her piece of fabric. They would then open the admissions for that day, match the fabric, find the unique identification number, and go to the registry to find what that child was now called and where it was in the school system.
Today the fabric tokens make up the largest collection of domestic 18th century textiles in this country. The majority are the kind of fabrics that rarely survive – cheap cotton or blanket – things that would have been worn to the point of collapse and burning.
“They are incredibly emotionally powerful because they speak to this moment of separation and this loss for the mother and for the child”
But because fabric is fragile, can fall apart or be lost, mothers were also encouraged to bring something else that was unique to them, which would act as back-up to the piece of fabric – and these are the tokens.
Of course, they are incredibly emotionally powerful because they speak to this moment of separation and this loss for the mother and for the child, and although they are some of the smallest things in our collection, they are the things that our visitors remember most strongly.
Visitors often think of the tokens as things that belonged to the children, but they didn’t; the children would never have seen their token. It was purely a practical means of identification. They needed to be small because each admission record or ‘billet’ was folded up like a letter and sealed shut, so the object needed to be small enough to fit into the folded letter.
In 1760 the admission system changed, tokens were no longer used and receipts were introduced. In the 19th century the 18th-century billets were opened and some of the more interesting tokens were put on public display. But nobody thought to make a note of which token belonged to which baby, so effectively they were orphaned.
Then about 12 years ago, two remarkable researchers, Janette Bright and Gillian Clark, decided to see if they could piece them back together through close study of the tokens and the billets – and they had some amazing successes.
Some of the tokens had left an imprint on the paper billet and some were explicitly referred to and described. So now a number of tokens have been reunited with their child. The impulse of a parent having to hand over a child to leave it with something – just a little thing, is something that is shared across time, so I think these tokens being orphaned is an added heartbreak.
“What makes the tokens very absorbing is that there’s this empty space, which people’s imaginations can fill.”
A few of the objects were clearly created specifically to be tokens and occasionally at some expense, but I would say the majority of them are repurposed objects.
With something like the masonic token all you can do is speculate on who had it? What was it for? Where? And of course the answer to all of this is; ‘we don’t know’. The 18th century was a period when masonic lodges expanded and William Hogarth, along with many other artists, was a member of a masonic lodge, because they were a way to climb the social ladder and to meet patrons. But did the family of this particular child have a lodge in common with a Governor? Who knows?
But that’s what makes the tokens very absorbing for our visitors; there’s this empty space, which people’s imaginations can fill.
In the 19th century the admission policy changed significantly, and the children had to be illegitimate. But in the 18th century children came in for all sorts of reasons and poverty was the biggest one. We know that a number of children were admitted by mothers whose husbands were either fighting overseas, or they had been widowed. So their children weren’t illegitimate, they weren’t unwanted and unloved. These mothers gave up their children purely because they could not feed them. It was a matter of survival and many tokens articulate the mothers’ love and care.
Of the roughly 25,000 children that the Hospital took in between 1741 and 1954, only about 1,500 were returned. We know that a number of women returned only to find that their child had died in the meantime. Unfortunately in the 18th century the mortality rate for children under five in the general population was 75%.
The Museum’s Collection is both incredibly sad but also incredibly inspiring, because although loss and separation are at its heart, the story of the Foundling Hospital is also about men and women seeing an injustice in society and deciding to change it. The Foundling Hospital was a project that was driven by individuals, creative people, who stood up and decided not to wait for others to change a terrible situation, but to change it themselves.
The three leading players in our story, the philanthropist Thomas Coram, the artist William Hogarth and the composer George Frideric Handel, were all childless men. So the abandonment of babies was not something that affected them personally. But they had the imagination, the conscience and the commitment to think “this is clearly not right, there needs to be support for these desperate families, we are going to change things.”
If the story was just the sadness and the separation I think it would be unbearable for all of us, but it’s not. It’s actually incredibly inspiring.
I think it’s a very important reminder that everyone has the potential to make the world a better place and there is really no excuse not to find a way to do that. It can be very small gestures, but the reality is if we all come together to try and make things better, we can effect lasting and very profound change, and that is a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
The Hospital continues today as the charity Coram. Their website address is: www.coram.org.uk
Caro Howell was speaking to Richard Moss.
The Foundling Museum
London, Greater London
The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. Established in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, and continuing today as the children’s charity Coram, the Hospital was set up as an institution ‘for the maintenance and education of exposed…