The true parentage of more than 16,000 babies left at London’s Foundling Hospital between 1741 and 1760 was recorded by a token, usually a piece of fabric, before their real identities were erased.
The tokens were either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Foundling Hospital’s nurses. They were then pinned to registration forms and bound up into ledgers. Once registered, the babies were given new names and hospital-issue clothes. The mother’s name was usually not recorded, so the token was often the only key to the child’s past and acted as authentication should he or she ever be reclaimed.
Occasionally, a personal note was left with a token. A pink and white flowered ribbon accompanying a baby girl brought in on 13 January 1758 also had a letter with it, saying: “Ann Gardiner, Daughter of James and Elizth Gardiner, was Born in St Brides Parish Octor ye 6th and Baptized and Registered in the Parish Church Octor ye 10th 1757. Begs to have care Taken of her and They will pay all Charges in a little Time with a handsome acknowledgement for the same and have her Home again when they Get over a little Trouble they are in: She is not a bastard Child. Your Care will be most Gratefully Acknowledged by your most obliged Humble Servant JG.”
Sometimes the tokens themselves carried clues, such as a small piece of mother-of-pearl inscribed: “James, Son of James Concannon, Gent, late or now of Jamaica 1757.” Researchers have discovered that James was born in September 1757 and was left at the hospital at 2 months old. His mother, Elizabeth, claimed to be married to James’ father, a soldier. Although Elizabeth left the token with 2 notes written “in an educated hand” signifying her intent to reclaim the baby, the records show that she never returned.
Some tokens appear to be souvenirs of doomed love affairs, such as a ring inscribed: “He who neglects me loses me.” The child who accompanied the ring appears to have grown up and left the hospital without ever seeing the object that was her only link to her parents.
Many mothers provided fabrics showing love hearts. One cut from red woollen cloth was pinned to the cap of a girl admitted on 22 November 1758 – she was given the name Isabel Crane by the hospital, but died a few weeks later. Others provided fabric with initials, names or dates of birth stitched on to them, as well as pictures of birds, butterflies or acorns.
Most children were abandoned due to extreme poverty. Archive documents describe the terrible state some of the babies arrived in: a baby boy admitted in 1757 was described as “Clothed with Rags and Swarming with Varmen.” Another baby admitted in 1759 was “A Mear Skilinton Covered with Rags with a hole in the Roofe of the Mouth.” Around two thirds of the babies given to the hospital died.
The babies who survived were fostered by wet nurses until the age of 5, when they returned to the hospital to be educated. At the age of 10, they were apprenticed in and outside of London. Catherine Walton, admitted to the hospital in 1745 at 3 weeks old, was eventually apprenticed in 1757 to a watch-case maker in Fleet Street. A 9 month-old boy named Theodosius Williamson by the hospital, went on to be apprenticed to a bricklayer in Essex in 1769.
Of the 16,282 babies brought to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed. Of these cases, only one piece of fabric was actually used to help identify the child – a piece of patchwork ribbon brought in with a boy named Charles in 1767. The hospital renamed him Benjamin Twirl. Two sections of the patchwork each have one half of an embroidered heart. The heart only became whole again when the two sections, one with the mother and one with the child, were reunited. His mother came back for him when he was aged 7.
An exhibition featuring 59 ledgers of foundling tokens, and the stories behind them, will open at Colonial Williamsburg on 25 May 13. The travelling exhibition, titled Threads of Feeling, has been organised by the Foundling Museum of London.
Colonial Williamsburg’s chief curator Ronald Hurst said: “These stories pack powerful, emotional punches, sure to resonate with parents. We are pleased to have the only mounting of the exhibition in the United States since it closed in London more than two years ago.”