Fate, Hope & Charity: Tokens left by mothers of abandoned babies at The Foundling Museum

By Ruth Hazard | 29 January 2013

Exhibition review: Fate, Hope and Charity, The Foundling Museum, London, until May 19 2013

a round metal disc with the words, this is a token inscribed into it
Inscribed copper token (1759)© Foundling Museum, London
For most, the haunting pain of giving up a child is something they’re unlikely to ever know, but here that grief is laid bare for all to see.

Although the origins of the initiative are unclear, during the 18th century the Foundling Hospital encouraged parents to leave personal tokens with the infants they were unable to keep.

These were not gifts - most were never seen by the children - but identifiers, to be sealed on file so mothers could prove their relationship if they were ever in a position to reclaim their young.

For some this meant sacrificing treasured possessions, such as bejewelled rings or intricately designed brooches, while for others all they had to give was a swatch of the embroidered cloth the baby was wrapped in at birth.

Sadly, many of these items were removed from their billet papers during the 19th century, meaning the tokens became separated from their stories. But this exhibition marks the progress of an ongoing project that hopes to piece the two back together.

Resisting the tendency to focus on the plight of the abandoned child, this display turns to the story of the mothers who had to leave their babies behind.

Who were these women? Disgraced and unmarried or bottom of the barrel poor? In some cases, but not all.

In fact, as these tokens reveal, many were completely ordinary, left in hard circumstances by the death of a husband or his being called up to fight at War.

Stories include a convicted counterfeiter who was sentenced to execution, an unmarried daughter of a wealthy upper class family and a woman struggling to feed the 12th young mouth; the reasons for putting a child in care were diverse and complex.

As such, their tokens form a fascinating chronicle of women's lives in this era, the poverty, morality and prejudices of the 18th century evident in the tiny souvenirs of their lives.

There's the calling card of a female midwife at a time where men commonly took this role, a ticket for one of the earliest women’s education lectures, a season ticket for the gardens, even the curled membrane that covered the infant’s head after birth was left in a parcelled billet - the most precious item its mother could leave.

This is an exhibition that seeps with sadness. The pain of the parent, the abandonment of the child; it’s truly heart wrenching stuff, with each token in the display a glimmer of hope that one day a family might be reunited.

But at a time when women had limited access to education, were utterly reliant on their husband’s wage and were vilified for sex outside of marriage, the hopes of many of these mothers went sadly unrealised and the tokens unclaimed.

Open 10am-5pm (11am Sunday, closed Monday). Admission £7.50/£5 (free for under-16s). Follow the museum on Twitter @FoundlingMuseum.

More pictures:

a ring with a red heart shaped stone set into it
Child's ring token (mid-18th century)© Foundling Museum, London
a photo of a brown hazelnut
Hazelnut (date unknown)© Foundling Museum, London
an old penny dated 1750 with notches cut into it
Notched, Irish half penny token. Copper (1750)© Foundling Museum, London
a round metal disc with the words "Kings experimental Philosophy Dukes Court" inscribed into it.
Token for Kings experimental philosophy lecture (mid-18th century)© Foundling Museum, London
a round red wax seal with a bearded man at its centre
Seal token (18th century)© Foundling Museum, London
a photo of a five piece simple paper brooch with buttons sewn onto it
Paper star token with decorations (mid-18th century)© Foundling Museum, London
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