Threads of Feeling
What would you give to the person you love most, if you might never see them again? What if that person was your child?
In 1739 when Coram was founded, unimaginable destitutionand poverty meant that many unmarried mothers faced abandoning their infants by the roadside, having no means to shelter and feed them themselves.
When Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital 275 years ago, suddenly, there was hope that these children might survive.
From the start, the Foundling Hospital made it possible for mothers to reclaim their babies if their circumstances changed.
Each baby left in its care was registered with a number and information to assist future identification. On the printed registration forms or 'billets', the sex of the child was noted, along with the clothes it was wearing, and any special distinguising marks.
In addition, the Hospital encouraged mothers to supply a 'token', which might be a note, or a small object, to be kept as an identifier should she ever come back to collect her baby.
Parted from those they treasured, mothers would give small tokens to the Hospital to identify them, if they could ever be reunited. Often fabric, they were either provided by the mother or cut from the child’s clothing by the Foundling Hospital's nurses.
They left coins, scraps of ribbon, even a button from their coat.
“Pray let particular care be taken of this little child,” read one note pinned to the clothing of little Florella Burley, born on June 19th, 1758.
“You have my heart, though we must part”, the engraving on a heart-shaped, silver-coloured token.
James and Elizabeth hoped to reclaim their daughter Ann, their note promising to “have her home again when they get over the little trouble they are in”.
Britain’s largest 18th century fabric collection
The overwhelming majority of the tokens were little pieces of fabric, often with an accompanying letter or statement.
The tokens were kept in Coram’s billet books as an identifying record for more than 4,000 babies handed to the hospital between 1741 and 1760. Amounting to some 5,000 individual items attached to registration forms and bound up into ledgers, they form the largest collection of everyday textiles surviving in Britain from the 18th century.
Occasionally children were reclaimed, and 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.
Because of their purpose to identify a child, they consist mainly of patterned and colourful fabrics. But there are also many examples of plain fabrics worn by ordinary women.