The Foundling Hospital tokens collection

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 the 18th Century, unimaginable destitution and poverty meant that many unmarried mothers faced abandoning their infants by the roadside, having no means to shelter and feed them themselves.

When the Foundling Hospital was established, there was hope that these children might survive. What is more, 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 gender of the child was noted, along with the clothes it was wearing, and any special distinguishing 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. They left coins, scraps of ribbon, or 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 19 June 1758. “You have my heart, though we must part”, was the engraving on another 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”.

The overwhelming majority of the tokens were little pieces of fabric, often with an accompanying letter or statement. They 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.

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.

In the 18th Century, material literacy, where certain objects were used to mark events, express allegiances and forge relationships, was familiar and widely shared and often, the hopes the mothers invested in their babies were expressed in the fabric. Fabric showing an acorn or a bud might suggest new growth, a bird or a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit.

But the most direct expressions of maternal emotion found among the tokens are those that showed a heart, by then a well established symbol of love. Foundling mothers left ‘hearts’ playing cards, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out of fabric and even, in the case of one baby boy, a gown printed with a hearts playing-card pattern.

  • Foundling number 13496. Print on white calico, a polychromatic bird.
  • Foundling number 9895. Shelled print.
  • Foundling number 14922. Print- polychromatic playing card pattern, 9 of Hearts and King of Hearts.
  • Foundling number 8931. Shelled print.
  • Foundling number 13789. Chintz.
  • Foundling number 10563. Heart in felted red woollen cloth.
  • Foundling number 9442. Playing card - 8 of Hearts.
  • Foundling number 2988. Paper heart with words - ‘as for me, I am Poor and needy- but the Lord careth for me. Psalms 40th, vers- 20th’.
  • Foundling number 10572. Print fine calico, polychromatic, white dotted ground with flowers.
  • Foundling number 9535. Print-polychromatic print flowers on dotted shelled fabric.
  • Foundling number 8338. Ribbon with middle section with name ‘Philip Hollond’ embroidered.
  • Foundling number 2545. Linen with embroidered text- ‘Ann Adams Born September The Twentieth Six 1756’.
  • Foundling number 1368. Name of child ‘Ann Bradley’ embroidered on linen.
  • Foundling number 9693. Girl twin of 9692. Born Westminster. Twins have same fabrics.
  • Foundling number 15213.
  • Foundling number 11028.
  • Foundling number 10096.
  • Foundling number 8905.
  • Foundling number 7209.
  • Foundling number 6946.
  • Foundling number 935.
  • Foundling number 170.
  • Foundling number 4111.
  • Foundling number 15553. Chinoiserie print.
  • Foundling number 13414. Chintz.
  • Foundling number 12997. Shelled print.
  • Foundling number 11337. Cotton print monochrome simple.
  • Foundling number 10579. Dotted polychrome.
  • Foundling number 10353. Poor register printing.
  • Foundling number 10071. Cotton print monochrome complex.
  • Foundling number 9848. Print shelled and dots.
  • Foundling number 9778. Cotton print polychrome with dark ground
  • Foundling number 2584. Flowered silk.
  • Foundling number 16169. Linen print.
  • Foundling number 15420. Striped silk.
  • Foundling number 14953. Checked stuff.
  • Foundling number 12637. Striped linsy
  • Foundling number 11868.
  • Foundling number 10117.
  • Foundling number 12058.