Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Foundling Museum, London, Two Articles

The Foundling Museum’s Collection contains many treasures associated with the Foundling Hospital. However, it is often the humblest objects which leave the greatest impression on our visitors, namely the eighteenth-century tokens.
In 1741 when the Hospital first opened its doors, mothers were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Since babies were renamed on admission, a system had to be created whereby a returning mother was able to be reunited with the baby she had handed over to the care of the Hospital. Between the 1740s and 1760s the procedure involved a swatch of fabric being cut from the baby’s clothes and then cut in half; one half was attached to the child’s admission paper or ‘billet’ on which was written the child’s unique admission number, while the other half was given to the mother. By keeping the swatch and remembering the date her baby was admitted, a mother could provide the Hospital with the information needed to identify the child.
However, in the event that the little piece of fabric was lost or the date of admission forgotten, mothers also left an object unique to them – a token – as a means of identification. These everyday items range from found objects such as coins, medals and jewellery, to personalised items created for this purpose such as poems, needlework and inscribed medallions. Pennies are some of the most common tokens and these were frequently personalised with engravings, inscriptions and punctures to ensure they were not mistaken for another’s. Once the admission information was taken the billet was folded up and sealed with the token inside, never to be opened unless a claim was made, meaning these little fragments of maternal hope were never seen by the children. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century the billets were opened and some of the more interesting tokens were put on display in the Hospital however, no one thought to make a note of which tokens belonged to which baby, so the majority of the tokens are themselves orphans.
I was taken up to the Picture Gallery and ... Mr Nichols, the school Secretary wanted to see me before I went into hospital … beside the pictures on the wall were two or three showcases… there was nothing to say what it was, but I knew instantly what it was. There was all little tokens in there ... bits of ribbon, bits of lace, buttons, bits of material, bits of tickets, coins ... I knew instantly that these were things that … mothers had left to be able to identify their child by ... I suppose they all hoped at some stage … I was just transfixed by this ... I kept wondering what my mother had left with me. Not realising, at that stage, that that system had finished years before … It was just a heart-breaking moment.
Robert Cox, former pupil
The custom of leaving tokens with babies lasted until the 1760s, when receipts were introduced. However, the system was so established that babies continued to be left with tokens so that by 1790 they numbered over 18,000.
Research into the tokens has revealed some of the circumstances surrounding parents’ decisions to give up their baby, as well as the poignant stories of the foundlings to whom they belonged. This research is ongoing however, it is likely that many tokens will never be reunited with their infant owners and it is this air of mystery, separation and loss that prompts such a strong reaction from our visitors.

The Foundling Museum, London, celebrates the opening of a new and highly emotive exhibition entitled Threads of Feeling. The exhibition will showcase fabrics never shown before to illustrate the moment of parting as mothers left their babies at the original Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram.

In the cases of more than 4,000 babies left between 1741 and 1760, a small object or token, usually a piece of fabric, was kept as an identifying record. The fabric was either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the hospital's nurses. Attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, these pieces of fabric form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th Century
A selection of the textiles and the stories they tell us about individual babies, their mothers and their lives forms the focus of the Threads of Feeling exhibition. The exhibition will also examine artist William Hogarth’s depictions of the clothes, ribbons, embroidery and fabrics worn in the 18th Century as represented by the textile tokens.
John Styles, Research Professor in History at the University of Hertfordshire, received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to curate the exhibition. John comments: “The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.
The textiles are both beautiful and poignant, embedded in a rich social history. Each swatch reflects the life of a single infant child. But the textiles also tell us about the clothes their mothers wore, because baby clothes were usually made up from worn-out adult clothing. The fabrics reveal how working women struggled to be fashionable in the 18th Century.”
Renuka Jeyarajah-Dent, Coram Director of Operations comments: “The exhibition so vividly illustrates how the separation of a mother from her child is never an easy act and the depth of feelings involved are the same. Coram remains a charity, which works with children parted from their parents, including those in state care, to enable the parents and children involved to deal with their emotions. Even today, an object can be a reminder and comfort when someone is parted from a parent.” The exhibition will include representations, curated by Renuka, from children, young people and families Coram works with today.
The Foundling Museum is at 40 Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1AZ. Tel: 020 7841 3600 The Museum is open Tuesday to Saturday 10am – 5pm and Sunday 11am – 5pm, closed on Mondays. Admission: £7.50, concessions £5, children free.
The Museum tells the story of The Foundling Hospital, London’s first home for abandoned children, which until the 1920s stood on the site that is now the Coram Fields children’s playground. It houses the Hospital’s fine collection of mainly eighteenth century art. The Museum also contains a gallery and research library dedicated to Handel, who was a major benefactor of the Hospital.


No comments:

Post a Comment