I have been exploring the records of the Foundling Hospital since the 1980s – and still enjoy every minute of the time I spend on them.
Recent work on tokens that parents left at the Hospital with their babies as identifiers 250 years ago shows that the system in place was a simple one and it worked. Parents did use their tokens to claim back their children.
Most of the tokens– playing cards, ribbons, letters – are safe with the children’s admission records but some – coins, medals and jewellery – were put on display in about 1860. Now for the first time both kinds are on display together at the Foundling Museum as an exhibition called Fate, Hope and Charity supported by Ancestry.co.uk.
The exhibition tells the stories behind some of these tokens, shows why parents had to abandon their children and looks at what they chose to identify their child. It was perhaps a coral necklace to ward off illness or something very personal that they had carried around in their pockets like a thimble or a lucky coin. They took time before the parting to engrave a coin or to embroider a length of ribbon with a name and date of birth to make them into something personal. These small objects carry a strong message that for most families parting with a child was sad and painful.
This coin, a silver Charles II shilling, threaded with a yellow ribbon, was the token of Oliver Luke, admitted in 1758. Five years later his father, Richard Luke Esq, from Eynesbury in Huntingdon, (the RL of the coin) came to the Hospital with an accurate description of the token and the staff matched it to Oliver’s records. Due to the high infant mortality rates at the time many children whose parents returned for them had died, but Oliver was alive to be returned to his father.
I have found, with the help of Huntingdon Library and Archives, that Oliver, born 1758, was not the only child of RL and ED. There were two more, one before (Peter) and one after (Thomas). Richard Luke had been married but his wife died in 1752 and in 1754 he was described as the ‘reputed father of a bastard child (Peter) born of the body of Elizabeth Dixey’, the ED of the coin. Both Richard and Elizabeth were excommunicated by the church for failing to answer charges about the birth of this child who was already dead by then. Oliver was brought home in 1763, the third child, Thomas, was born and died in 1765 and Richard died in 1766.
Stories like this give us a picture of eighteenth-century family life we don’t see very often. You can understand why I enjoy so much working with the Foundling Hospital records and particularly with the tokens.
Dr Gillian Clark is an independent researcher whose wider interest is in childhood outside the family home, particularly mother and baby homes, fostering and adoption.
Images: Foundling Hospital Tokens © The Foundling Museum, London
The Foundling Museum
Open Tuesday-Saturday: 10:00-17:00, Sunday: 11:00-17:00
Adult, £7.50, concession, £5 , free admission for children up to 16 years, Foundling Friends
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