I recently visited the fascinating Threads of Feeling exhibition at The Foundling Museum near Russell Square in London. The museum provides an absorbing insight into 18th century London and tells of the work of the Foundling Hospital, which took in children whose parents could not support them or who were abandoned, from 1739 through to the 1950s.
Between 1741 and 1760 more than 16,000 babies were left at The Foundling Hospital. Whilst the policy at the time was to give the children new names, to ensure a fresh start in life, the parents were given the opportunity to leave a token with the staff to enable the identification of the child, should they ever be in a position to reclaim their child. Many parents could not leave anything so a snippet of fabric from the children’s clothing was kept. These pieces of fabric now comprise one of the biggest archives of 18th Century fabric in the world. However, it’s not the scale of the collection that was really interesting to me but the remarkable stories told by these little pieces of fabric and paper included in the files.
The pieces of fabric the babies were clothed in tell stories about the social situation of their mothers from simple pieces of cotton, linen, calico, flannel and gingham to dyed and patterned materials and more expensive fabrics. Many of the mothers were obviously devastated at having to give up their children and left heartfelt notes, poems, embroidered symbols such as birds and butterflies (representing flying free from their current life) and beautifully made keepsakes fashioned from swatches of fabric.
A lovely poem was left by the mother or father of Phillip Holland on 1st May 1758 along with a pink ribbon embroidered with his name–
“Go gentle Babe! Thy future hours be spent
In Vertuous purity and calm content.
Life’s Sunshine Bless thee and no anxious care
Sit on thy Brow, and draw the falling tear.
Thy Countrey’s grateful Servant may’st thou prove
And all thy Life by Happiness and Love”
It’s so sad to think of the time the mothers spent embroidering and sewing these pieces of fabric, with the knowledge that they had to give up their children. This is particularly so since of the 16,282 infants admitted between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were ever called for again. One of the saddest stories told was that of a mother, who having married a farmer and moved out of London, came to reclaim her child only to find that the child had died a few years earlier. Not all the stories were sad though – when Sarah Bender had to give up her son Charles she left him part of a patchwork of printed fabric, on which she had embroidered a heart in red thread. Eight years later Sarah arrived back at the Foundling Hospital and reclaimed her son with the other half of the patchwork she had kept herself.
Onsite we have various collections which cover 18th and early 19th century London including LMA records and Pallot’s Marriages and Baptisms - you can find out about all our collections covering this period by using the Card Catalogue and narrowing down the collecitons on the left. These collections and others may well contain some of the children and parents contained in The Foundling Hospital records.
Visiting the Threads of Feeling exhibition and The Foundling Museum helped me understand more about the lives of the inhabitants of London in the 18th century and gave me an insight into what my ancestors may have seen amongst the families living around them. It was really interesting to see this distant period in history brought to life just with pieces of fabric and the stories of the people involved. It’s probably a reminder to all of us to keep track of and record our family stories and not just the names and dates of those who died many years ago, to preserve these more recent stories for future generations.
Right, I’m off to my tree to note down my Dad’s childhood stories of Guy Fawkes Night and running away (to the park for all of two hours) when he was six!
Unfortunately the Threads of Feeling exhibition has now finished but some of the exhibits from the exhibition will be at the Stitch & Craft Show at Olympia 2, London from 17-20 March. Or if you can’t make it to London you can visit their lovely online exhibition and watch the fascinating BBC piece on the exhibition. The Foundling Museum also has some very interesting permanent exhibits and is well worth a visit!