‘Of babies taken in by the hospital, about two-thirds died.’
When Thomas Coram returned to London in 1704, it was to a city that was a powerhouse of industry, invention, global trade and wealth. It was also noisy, disease-ridden, polluted, and the site of desperate poverty. The situation for children was bleak with soaring mortality rates. Parents unable to care for their babies because of poverty or illegitimacy had few options, and many abandoned them in the street.
After 17 years of campaigning, Thomas Coram finally received a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739, enabling him to establish the Foundling Hospital to care for and educate some of London’s most vulnerable citizens. From 1741, when the first babies were admitted to 1954 when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Foundling Hospital cared for and educated around 25,000 children.
The Foundling Museum opened in 2004. They constructed the building at 40 Brunswick Square in the 1930s on the site of the Foundling Hospital and incorporates many architectural features from the original eighteenth-century building.
The Foundling Museum preserves ‘tokens’ left by parents who gave up their children because of poverty or the social stigma of illegitimacy.
The Tokens are incredibly emotional because they speak of a moment of separation and loss for the mother and for the child. They are the everyday objects left by the desperate and destitute mothers in the mid-18th century who delivered their babies into the care of the Foundling Hospital.
Hidden stories unfold through scraps of Georgian life that range from coins, keys, buttons, pieces of fabric. The tokens also include a season ticket to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a pass to the King’s Road, which was a private road in the 18th century, a ticket to a public philosophy lecture, a pot of rouge, and a spyglass for the theatre.
The children’s names were changed within about 24 hours of arriving at the Hospital and in the Museum. There is a wall that lists some names they were given. They named some after Governors–so we have a number named Thomas Coram (the founder of the Hospital)–and Eunice Coram, his wife. There are also William Hogarth’s and some historical characters like Geoffrey Chaucer, Julius Caesar and Walter Raleigh.
The tokens are extraordinary because they really speak to the ordinary lives of 18th century people. The most abject token is a nut. Clearly for the mother, this was all she could afford. They are fascinating objects in their own right, but they are also incredibly poignant because they infuse each one with a sense of hope, because a mother wouldn’t leave a token unless she hoped that one day she could come back to claim her child. Until 1760, when the hospital started issuing receipts for children left in its care, they kept no written records of any sort regarding the mothers and fathers who entrusted their children to the hospital.
As so many of the parents were illiterate, they would not have left a note or written statement as an identifier. A number recorded on a written form on which was also identified babies noted the child’s age, sex, clothing, and identifying marks.
The form, along with whatever tokens were left, were then put in a packet, sealed with wax, and stored until a parent returned to make a claim. With no other method by which to identify and match families, the tokens became, for all intents and purposes, the only tether between parent and child. Of babies taken in by the hospital, about two-thirds died.
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