Stacey Halls, author of The Familiars, writes for Historia about the inspiration behind her latest book, The Foundling: tokens left by mothers to help identify the babies they gave up at the Foundling Hospital in London. Some are beautiful, some simple, but all are poignant reminders of desperation and loss.
A pink silk purse. A nut. A sixpence. These ordinary, everyday objects from Georgian London that you might find in any pocket, drawer, or dropped on the street are just some of the heartbreaking tokens women left with their children at the Foundling Hospital.
Founded in 1739 by sailor and philanthropist Thomas Coram, from the day its doors opened, the home for “babies at risk of abandonment” was hugely oversubscribed. With room for 400 children, it only accepted infants of fewer than two months old, who were sent out to wet nurses in the country before returning to the hospital’s Bloomsbury site at the age of five.
One of the reasons women flocked to the hospital from all over in the hope of surrendering their children’s care was the quality of life the children could expect there. Protected from illness and poverty, the foundling children had access to doctors, plentiful food and a guaranteed roof over their head until they were apprenticed in their teens.
Sadly, foundling children were unlikely to ever see their natural families again – but that did not prevent their desperate mothers leaving a token or “identifier” with them. These small, insignificant items were recorded against the children admitted, so that however many months or years down the line, if the child’s mother found her circumstances had changed and she was able to give her child a home, mother and child would be matched and reunited.
The children were given leaden tags with a unique number, and along with a description of the clothes they were admitted in, the token, number and clothes were recorded by a clerk in the Foundling Hospital ledger.
News of the Foundling Hospital’s famous tokens swept the country, and scores of women would turn up on lottery night – when coloured balls were pulled from a canvas bag to determine whether their child got a place or was turned away – with their tokens ready.
These included coins engraved with the child’s name or initials and their birthday, tickets for London’s pleasure gardens, gambling tokens, playing cards and more unusually jewellery, including rings and necklaces.
The tokens were not deposits, as in a pawn shop, but the woman would be given hers back if she came to collect her child, which suggests that the more valuable tokens were perhaps left with every intention to be claimed along with a son or daughter.
The most common token of the many thousands left with foundling children was a swatch of fabric, torn or cut neatly from either the mother’s clothes or her baby’s.
We can derive several meanings from this type of token, including that the woman wasn’t hopeful her child would be given a place, so didn’t bring anything else, or that she had nothing else to give.
The Foundling Hospital was established for the city’s poor and needy, for women who were forced to work to provide for themselves and their families. Also, the shame of illegitimacy ran deep. Although illegitimate children were discreetly accepted in upper class circles and among the gentry (around 10% of wills at this time acknowledged illegitimate offspring), and pawned off to relatives or servants’ families, the same could not be said for the lower classes, who had neither the funds nor the space to hide them away.
The Hospital’s collection of fabric is the largest of everyday Georgian material in existence. Wool, printed cotton, linen, silk, worsted, cambric, fustian – these ordinary materials worn by ordinary people allow us to build up a fascinating picture of life and fashion in Georgian times, far away from the pristine glass exhibits of the V&A.
One of the tokens that helped inspire my latest novel, The Foundling, was a flat heart, made of mother of pearl. There are endless heart motifs in the tokens – they are carved into shillings, constructed and pinned from fabric, stamped on playing cards. They give just a hint of the love these mothers felt for their children, who they could not keep.
Each one is unique and moving, and some of them are desperate, such as the rebus token where “I want relief” is depicted in a pictogram.
But all of them are precious, and sadly every one represents a child who was never reunited with his or her family.
Read more about The Foundling.
Stacey’s first novel was the best-selling The Familiars, set in Lancashire during the Pendle witch trials of 1612.
She has written about the background to The Familiars for Historia.
Page from the Foundling Hospital admission records dated December 1758: michael clarke stuff via Flickr
The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London: a bird’s-eye view of the courtyard, numbered for a key, engraving after Louis-Philippe Boitard, 1753: via Wellcome Collection (CC BY)
Mother-of-pearl heart-shaped foundling token: michael clarke stuff via Flickr