Most of the tokens that mothers left with their babies at the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1803 were coins and medals. Common objects that were in general circulation, tied around the neck of their offering with coloured ribbon or embroidered fabric. Lower denomination coins were soft enough to rub away one side and scrape a message, pierce holes into or cut ridges out of the sides, making them identifiable, if the mother, or another interested party, was able to return for the child. But the women also left a plethora of other things including thimbles, gambling chips, padlocks and keys. Many of the objects were cut in half or marked to match the other side: one dirty sleeve, one half of a medal or a torn playing card. The tokens were then wrapped in a billet that recorded the child’s name, sex, estimated age and a description of the clothing it arrived in, sometimes with a cut piece of fabric as further identification. Then they were sealed with wax, filed away and the baby’s name was changed.
There is something about this time of year, post- Christmas excess and post- presents frenzy, when we are stuffed with rich food and shiny with our own good fortune, that makes me think of the tokens in the Foundling Museum. These pathetic scraps of hope. These gifts of devotion and faith. I think that they are probably the most poignant objects I’ve ever seen. Left by women who were driven to sever themselves from their children because they simply couldn’t look after them. Maybe the father had run away, or gone to war, or lost a job or a limb, or couldn’t be identified amongst the many to whom she’d opened her legs for money. But many of these women sincerely hoped that one day, one day they would be able to return to the Hospital and take their child back. Care for their child. Why else go to the trouble of cutting a coin in half if not to reunite it with the other half? Why engrave a name and a date onto a coin, if not to retrieve it?
Some of the tokens seem haphazard, perhaps something found in a pocket or tucked into a cuff: a hairpin; a hazelnut; an entry ticket to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens; the button from the jacket of a Coldstream Guard. Others are carefully thought through and created: a black ribbon sewn around the outside of the ace of diamonds; an angel engraved on a coin with Elizabeth Harris’s birth details surrounding it; a piece of engraved mother of pearl James son of James Concannon Gent, late or now of Jamaica 1757. And many more may have been steeped in meaning, a puzzle to uncover, or have little meaning at all: the admission ticket to a lecture by Dr Erasmus King on Experimental Philosophy; a commemorative medal marking the naval victory in 1739, when Admiral Vernon took the town of Portobello with only six ships; a pen knife handle engraved with flowers and leaves; an amulet of a black hand encased in a protective gauntlet. All carry the potential kernel of a great Dickensian story of thwarted love, escape, retribution or rightful inheritance.
It was actually extremely hard to secure a place for your child in the Foundling Hospital. Its founder, Captain Coram, returned to Britain from making his fortune in sugar plantations in 1719 and couldn’t believe that babies were dead or dying on the streets of the great capital, London. For nearly twenty years, he battled against apathy and the puritan impulses of British society that believed that a safe harbour for illegitimacy would only encourage wantoness and prostitution. Eventually, George II’s support for the charitable foundation was secured and a Royal Charter was signed in 1739. But the Hospital was over-subscribed from it’s inception, flooded with babies every month and having to turn many away. It was run by a lottery system for the first fifteen years, then, in 1756, the Government agreed to support the Hospital financially on the understanding that it should admit every child brought to it. During the four years before government funding was withdrawn, the Foundling Hospital accepted an astonishing 15,500 children. From 1760, it was run by a mixture of petition and lottery and by the end of the 18th century it had taken in 18,500 children in total.
And what of those few women who did manage to return to the imposing complex of buildings in Bloomsbury to claim their children? Their identifying token, clutched in their hands, and the money for the child’s upkeep in a pocket? Quite often, it seems their babies had died. The Hospital might have given infants a higher probability of survival than in the rambling London slums where over 74 percent of children died before they were five years old, or the workhouses where 90 per cent died, but many still didn’t survive. How the heart clenches at the thought of poor Anne Costley, a single woman of Davies Street, who brought her two week old son to the Hospital on 19th April 1759. She left a token of a gold shirt buckle, marked with the initials IH on the reverse, that would have been worn as a brooch. Exactly one year later, she came to the Hospital to claim him but he’d died just ten weeks before under the care of a nurse in Great Parndon in Essex.
And now, after the Christmas and New Year feasts have gone and the gifts put away, I want to remember those poor women who had nothing left to give but their own babies. Whose tokens of love and hope were mere coins and ribbons and keys and scraps of patched clothing.
I highly recommend a visit to the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury. A selection of tokens left by mothers in the 18th century for their children are on permanent display. https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk