Sunday, 26 May 2013

Foundlings and fabric, a window onto the eighteenth century

Mr Tulip and I have spent a few days in London, visiting exhibitions (both of us) and buying otherwise hard-to-get sewing supplies (me). My mum visited on a day trip and came with us to one of our favourite museums; the Foundling Museum.

Situated not far from the British Museum, the museum is on the site of, and tells the story of, the Foundling Hospital; London’s first home for abandoned children.

A map of the area, probably late nineteenth or early twentieth century

The Foundling Hospital was established by a retired sea captain, Thomas Coram. The sight of deserted children dying in the streets of London prompted him to spend 17 years campaigning for a Hospital (which at that time meant a charitable establishment in general, not solely a place for treating illness) for the "Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children".

The Foundling Hospital was established by Royal Charter in 1739. The first children were accepted on 25th March 1741, into temporary premises in Hatton Garden. By then a 56-acre site to the north of the city had been purchased for a purpose-built home for the Hospital. At the time the land was fields, and the site was chosen to provide fresh air for the children, away from the pollution of London. This engraving of the completed Hospital clearly shows the countryside beyond.

The Foundling Hospital in 1750

In reality, the Hospital was a rather more plain and forbidding-looking building than the engraving might suggest.

Photograph of the Hospital circa 1900, © Peter Higginbotham

In order to encourage women to bring their babies to the hospital rather than abandon them, no questions were asked, and foundling babies were given new names on admission. However from the beginning the Hospital went to great pains to ensure that a mother could be reunited with her child, if in the future she found herself in a position to reclaim the baby she had given up. A detailed registration form was completed, which noted the clothing the child was wearing on admission, and mothers were encouraged to provide a token, to be used as an identifier. The Hospital would attach the token to the child’s record of admission, which was then folded up and sealed to protect the mother’s identity.

A selection of the tokens, © Coram

Many of the tokens were everyday objects such as coins, jewellery, buttons etc. However a number of them were fabric, either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Hospital's nurses. Kept from light, stored with the exact date on which they were received, and scrupulously preserved by the Hospital authorities, these form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the eighteenth century.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the folded records were unsealed, and bound into ledgers. In 2010-2011 an exhibition, Threads of Feeling, displayed some of the 5,000 textile tokens in the museum’s collection. The online exhibition can be viewed on the Museum's website here.

A view of the exhibition, © Courtesy Foundling Museum

Four of the ledgers, © Courtesy Foundling Museum

A large proportion of the fabric tokens are patterned. As the purpose was to provide an identifier for the child this is not surprising; the parent would want to be sure that what they provided was distinctive.

"Flowered lawn", flowers printed on a fine linen lawn. Foundling 11868, admitted 4 March 1759. © Coram

The descriptions of the tokens show how spelling has changed over time.

"Flowered chince", chintz. Foundling 13789, admitted 27 August 1759. © Coram

Although many of the textile tokens are printed cotton or linen, there are some far more costly fabrics.

"Silk. Fringe", an expensive flowered dress silk of about 1750 with a matching fly braid. Foundling 2584, admitted 27 October 1756. © Coram

Not only fabric was left as a token; ribbons were a popular choice as well.

"A bunch of ribbons narrow - Yellow, Blue, Green & Pink", silk ribbons tied in a bunch with a knot. Foundling 170, admitted 9 December 1743. © Coram

Sometimes part of the child's clothing was used as a token, presumably when the mother had not provided anything.

"Sleeves red and white speckl'd linen turn'd up red spotted with white", a baby's sleeve made of linen with a cuff of linen or cotton. Foundling 235, admitted 23 May 1746. © Coram

Some of the tokens feature embroidery.

"Worckt with flowers", linen or cotton embroidered with flowers. Foundling 14084, admitted 3 October 1759. © Coram

Many of the tokens, whether fabric or not, feature hearts in some way.

"The Bit of Red Cloth Enclosed was pinned to the Childs Cap", heart cut from red woollen cloth, ribbon of blue paduasoy silk and a piece of linen diaper. Foundling 10563, admitted 22 November 1758. © Coram

Perhaps the saddest tokens are those which include the child's name. It was common knowledge that when a child was admitted to the Hospital he or she was baptised with a new name. Nonetheless some mothers included a token with the child's original name on it, possibly in the hope that the child would one day get to see the token. In fact, no child ever saw the token with which it had been admitted. This example, given the work and care which has clearly gone into it, is particularly heartbreaking.

Fine embroidery. The scale to the side is in centimetres. © Coram

Although sadly very few of the children were ever reclaimed, the system did work. When a parent petitioned the Hospital for the return of his or her child, they had to provide details of the token they had left. In a few cases, they even brought another part of the token with them, to prove their claim.

This token is part of a needlecase, which had been cut in half. It was the token of foundling 16516, admitted to the Hospital on 11 February 1767 and renamed Benjamin Twirl. On 10 June 1775 his mother Sarah Bender returned to the Hospital to reclaim him, presumably bringing with her the other half which she had kept for eight years.

Patchwork needlecase. © Coram

These tokens, and many more, are featured in the book which accompanied the exhibition. The book is still available, and can be purchased from the museum.

But what of the Hospital itself?

By 1926 the city of London had expanded well beyond the Foundling Hospital, and the decision was taken to move the Hospital out to the country and sell the original site. Changes in the approach to child care later in the twentieth century brought an emphasis on children being placed with families rather than in an institution, and in 1954 the Hospital, now called the Thomas Coram School, closed. Today the charity continues as Coram; supporting vulnerable children, young people and families.

When the original site was sold, the Hospital governors bought back the northern portion of the land. Today the headquarters of Coram, and the Foundling Museum, are based there. A further seven acres were bought by local residents, and turned into a park. Now known as Coram’s Fields, it is a rule of the park that no adult may enter unless accompanied by a child.

Coram's Fields today. The white building in the background is part of the original Hospital.

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