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Fate, Hope & Charity

Revealed: The hidden stories of the Foundling Hospital tokens

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Fate, Hope & Charity
© Foundling Museum

Thursday 25 January - Sunday 19 May 2013

The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, a "Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children" which looked after more than 27,000 children over 3 centuries at 3 sites until its closure in 1953.

Fate, Hope & Charity looks at the tokens parents left with their children and uncovers stories that are a testament to the grief of separation and timeless bond between a mother and her child.

About The Tokens

The token system was understood and parents came prepared when bringing their children. The token they brought was kept inside a folded piece of paper – the billet – and that was sealed with wax. These were filed in date order only to be opened on petition for the child's return. These were never seen by the child.

Admission billets and tokens of 18,000 children admitted to the Foundling Hospital are still preserved today.

Lost History

In 1858, John Brownlow, the Secretary of the Foundling Hospital decided these tokens should be seen and the papers were opened and unfolded. Sadly, many tokens and billets became separated which means many cannot trace their past.

For the last seven years, Foundling Museum volunteers and independent researchers Janette Bright and Dr. Gillian Clark have been conducting research to try to piece together the stories of these foundlings. Much has been uncovered but there is still more to learn.

The Tokens on Display

© Foundling Museum

Many parents left everyday objects but many also personalised the tokens to help with identification but also to express their love and loss. (There are magnifying glasses available for visitors to use to better see them,) Notched coins, membership discs and other 'pocket pieces' give us an insight into Georgian life. By leaving a thimble a mother was showing a strong intention to return for the child as this would have been how she made her living and it would have been valuable to the mother. Coins bent into an 'S' shape are love tokens or 'benders' and a ticket disc to the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens reminded me of a previous exhibition: The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens 1729-1786.

Due to three wars in the 1700s many women had to give up their children but intended to collect them when the father returned. But if the father dies in action the child could never be claimed. Around this time, many tokens were commemorative medals or guard's jacket buttons.

A small, simple token with "I need relief" stamped on will ring true with any new parent and is hard-hitting. Parenting is tough today with all the support we now have on offer yet in the 1700s it would have been unbearable for someone poor and alone.

The exhibition touches on male and female midwifery and I discovered a 'caul' – the birth membrane that covers a newborn's head – was considered valuable and sailors thought it could prevent drowning. Two children at the Foundling Hospital were admitted with a caul as their token.

Individual Stories

The central display is of individual stories including a heart-wrenching hand-written letter from a mother held at Newgate jail in 1757. In the letter Margaret Larney describes herself as "the unfortunate women that lies under sentens of Death". Two of her children had already died in the jail with her but she gave birth to a son at the jail who was accepted at the Foundling Hospital along with another brother. She was later executed.

The Exhibition

© Foundling Museum

The room is not overly bright as there are historical manuscripts on display but it is light enough to see all and to reflect. There are no atmospheric sounds so you can read and discover in peace and take in the stories behind the tokens.

There is only one painting on display in the exhibition. The Dead Soldier (c. 1789) by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) which clearly demonstrates the loss of a military husband and father and the hopelessness of the situation while a young child is still on the mother's breast.

At the end of the exhibition we discover that over 500 parents petitioned for the return of their children from 1748-98 but many children had already died. There are original petition forms on display plus the reasons. About 3% of the children were claimed.

There is still much more research to be done and many foundlings do not know their history. There are some very unique but unmatched tokens on display.

This is a small exhibition but very moving and an excellent addition to a visit to the Foundling Museum. The permanent exhibitions explain the social history of the time further to bring real context to this display.

Fate, Hope & Charity is curated by Stephanie Chapman.

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