Padlock bracelet from the collection of tokens left by mothers who entrusted their babies into the care of the Foundling Hospital. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.
Helen Barrett went along to the Foundling Museum to hear some truly moving tales.
A silver clasp, a thimble, a doll’s arm, a string of wooden beads, a ribbon, a hazelnut shell; in the elegant exhibition rooms of the Foundling Museum it would be easy to overlook the tiny collection of 18th century love tokens, arranged in a neat line in the corner of the Permanent Social History Collection room.
Some are ornate and made of valuable materials; others are scrappy, torn and grimy. Each is an object left by a mother giving up her baby to the Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1750.
For the hospital’s governors, the tokens were an administrative necessity – personal objects were a unique way for mothers to identify themselves if they ever returned to be reunited with their children. But if not, tokens were left in the belief that a child would be given a tangible, personal link to their past.
A collection of tokens left behind. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.
“They are extraordinary,” says the museum’s director, Rhian Harris. “And they reflect the different classes, tastes and kinds of associations a mother had with her child. Whatever was important to the woman, or whatever she could afford to leave, she left with her baby.”
Harris is talking to a crowd of visitors – by now, blinking back tears - to the museum’s late night opening event to celebrate Museums and Galleries Month.
She explains why the museum chose the tokens for this year’s theme, Objects of Desire: “These love tokens represent the desire of the mother to find a better life for her child. They also represent her own desire to have a better life, but there’s a further desire to leave part of herself behind as well.”
Painted plaque left by a mother (enamel on metal). © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.
Equally, the tokens are objects of desire for the children who were left to the care of the hospital. “Although the children never received them, they represent a child’s desire to know where they’ve come from and where they might belong,” says Harris.
Up to a thousand babies were abandoned every year in early 18th century London. Campaigning philanthropist Thomas Coram, the artist William Hogarth and composer George Frideric Handel established the Foundling Hospital in Bloomsbury in 1741, on a site adjacent to the present buildings. The scale of the effort suggests the three acted in exasperation at a time when there was scant provision for poverty and vulnerability.
The 18th century Billet Book – displayed alongside the tokens – was an inventory of identifying marks and clothing for each child on admission. Its pages reveal that the majority of women giving up their babies in 18th century London were living in abject poverty and unable to care for a child, but also that there were women from other classes who, according to Harris, were likely to have been deserted or raped.
The love tokens at the Foundling Hospital as it was are said to have been a great influence on Charles Dickens when he came to write Oliver Twist. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.
The book lies open on a handwritten poem, which Harris describes as “so poignant, so heartfelt, that I feel only the mother herself could have actually written this”. Written for a child named Joseph, born in 1759 and left at 14 days old, it ends by revealing a mother’s voice of resignation and regret:
If Fortune should her favours give
That I in Better plight may Live
I’d try to have my boy again
And Train him up the best of Men
Documents and letters petitioning the hospital governors hang above the tokens. One, written on behalf of a woman named Margaret Larney, reads:
“I am the unfortunate woman that now lies under sentens of death at Newgatt (Gaol). I had a child put in here when I was sent here his name is James Larney and this is name is John Larney….let them know one another.”
Embroidered heart. © Coram Family in the care of the Foundling Museum.
The link between these tokens and Dickens’ Oliver Twist is tantalisingly real. Written 100 years later, the young Oliver is able to identify his family with a locket left by his mother. According to Harris, this is no coincidence: “Dickens was very influenced by the Foundling Hospital because he lived opposite. He would probably have seen these tokens because, after a period of time, we know they were put on display.”
Unlike Oliver, the Foundling Hospital children were not given their tokens. Again, the reasons were practical, as Harris explains: “It was partly to protect the mother’s identity. One of the remits of the hospital was to give the woman a second chance, allowing her back into society after having ‘fallen’. She could start again without the stigma of having an illegitimate child.”
Visitors to the museum can trace the Foundling Hospital’s story through film, photographs, oral histories and documents. But the tokens are perhaps the most compelling exhibits because they raise questions that can never be answered. What were the women thinking or hoping for when they chose to leave a small magnifying glass, a key or a thimble with their baby?
There are few clues. The only certainty seems to be that women left their children in extraordinary circumstances, and each token represents an individual life and an individual hope.
Helen Barrett is participating in the 24 Hour Museum/ MGM Arts Writing Prize 2005.