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Tokens of Life


Tokens of Life CHILDREN OF THE F OUN D LIN G H OS PITAL The London Foundling Hospital was the first purpose built home for children whose mothers were unable to care for them due to poverty and social exclusion. Set up in the 18th Century for ‘the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, the Hospital took in babies who were abandoned or given to the Hospital from families who wanted a better life for them than they could provide.


Foundling Tokens

When a baby was brought to the hospital the mother left a token as a means of identification in case she ever wanted to reclaim the child. Scraps of fabric, cut from either the mother’s or the baby’s clothing, were pinned by the mothers to their baby’s clothes. Upon entry, the Hospital would attach them to the child’s record of admission, which were then stored away in billet books. Once the babies were registered, they were effectively adopted – they were given new names and hospitalissue clothes. As the mother’s name was usually not recorded and family links severed, the tokens were used as identification and a safeguard to ensure only a family member could reclaim the child in the future.


A selection of entries from the Hospital Billet Books (above and following pages)

Each small piece of fabric, ribbon or note represents the life of a baby left at the London Foundling Hospital. The reasons for children arriving at the hospital varied, official records reveal that many children were accepted into the Hospital and died only a matter of weeks, and in some cases days later, suggesting that families may have tried to seek help for ill children. Others were given to the Hospital where families wanted a better life for their children than they could offer themselves.


The textiles themselves were often testament to the mother’s love. Sometimes the mothers provided fabric with initials, names or dates of birth stitched on to them, or chose fabrics with pictures of birds, butterflies or acorns, perhaps an indication that the mother hoped the child would have a happy life. The fabric token above has been pieced together from a variety of swatches and embroidered. On the blue section, half an embroidered heart is visible, a design that would only become whole again once the mother and child were reunited.


The notes that accompany the swatches often contained good wishes and hope for the child’s future, and provide insight into the desperation and poverty that too many London women faced each day.

The tokens also provide a link to the true identity and history of the children. Although, some stories have happy endings, of foundlings restored to their mothers, or reaching independence in adulthood, others are simply heartbreaking where mothers returned to find their children had not survived.


Articles of Association Parents also left a variety of objects as tokens, usually small but memorable, or meaningful, things like coins and medals, locks and keys, jewellery and household objects. Some of the tokens were personalised with the child’s name and date of birth. The token below features a pictorial rebus, which reads, ‘I want relief’, followed by the initials, G.B. and the date, 16 January 1759. Other items seem to have been re-purposed love tokens, left with the infant who perhaps was the result of an affair. The ring (opposite page) is very small suggesting it may be a child’s, possibly bought specifically to be left as a token. The child this token was left for is recorded as having been discharged from the Hospital when she came of age, probably never having seen the ring that was her only link to her parents.

A selection of items used as Foundling Tokens


Many tokens, as well as offering clues about the child’s parents, also provide an insight into the wider culture of 18th Century London. One example (right) is stamped with masonic emblems such as the square, compass, and trowel. Freemasonry as a philosophical movement developed in the early 18th century and was linked to the ideals of the Enlightenment and the development of the urban middle class. Perhaps this child’s father was a Freemason. Another example (far right) is an admission ticket to a lecture by Dr. Erasmus King, who gave regular talks on science at his home in Dukes Court, Westminster, and begs the question, why was this specific object left with a child?

The Hospital gradually evolved a more sophisticated administrative system, where mothers were issued with receipts. So the practice of leaving tokens died out at the beginning of the nineteenth century. However, even after 1758, when written receipts began to be issued to parents, many still chose to leave a token as a tangible link with the child they left behind. Receipt given upon admitting children to the Hospital


School Life Children admitted to the Hospital lived with foster families for the first five years of their lives, so babies could be wet-nursed. At the age of five, children left their foster parents’ care and came to live in the institution, which became known as the Foundling Hospital School. A basic education in reading, writing, arithmetic and scripture was provided. This gradually broadened to include grammar, geography and drawing. On leaving school the majority of boys joined the army and girls generally went into domestic service. Some of the girls perceived to be more academic were given the chance to continue their studies at Camden Girls School.

Children in a classroom (above) A selection of Foundling Tokens (left)

Boys also served apprenticeships in variety of trades including cheesemongers, butchers, blacksmiths, bakers, weavers, papermakers, tailors and shoemakers. The Hospital continued to act as guardians until the young people were 21 years old but follow up support and care was always provided with many turning back to the Hospital for assistance later in life for work, relief from debts or medical treatment.

Identification Process The earliest recorded request to reclaim children was on 24 November 1742. Before allowing the child to leave the Hospital, the Governors usually required the applicant to pay for its care and to post security for its future maintenance. Some parents were unable to do this, so in 1764 the Governors decided to abandon these requirements, thereby enabling more parents to reclaim their children. The only conditions they now insisted upon were satisfactory proof of the right to claim the child, which applicants could meet by describing its clothes or the tokens sent with it, or by producing the receipt given for it. Adequate evidence that the applicants were able to maintain the child was also required. Of the 16,282 babies admitted to the hospital between 1741 and 1760, records show only 152 were reclaimed.


Foundling Stories

Despite many of the children never being reclaimed, there is some evidence in the records of children being returned to their families. The historic records show some details of babies that were returned to families, some where false attempts were made to claim them and others where mothers returned to find their child had not survived. Later records are not so clear, however many of the children went on to complete apprenticeships and held successful jobs, whilst building lives and families of their own.


Excerpts from the Original Records Clarissa Cripps (805)

Charlotte Willis (16433)

Elizabeth Puxty (648)

Margaret Bye (11890)

Admitted on 18 September 1751 Returned to her father Robert Maxwell of Drury Lane, upholsterer on 20 June 1764.  Admitted in 1750 Reclaimed in 1764 by her mother Ann Craven, of Hornsey Lane, Islington. 

Sarah Henley (817)

Abandoned 2 September 1751. Died 16 September 1751 Application made on 25 March 1762 for reclamation by Maria Denton, St Leonard, Shore Ditch.

Benjamin Kippax (6651)

Abandoned on 14 December 1757. Returned to his mother Elizabeth Collins, of Birmingham, widow, on 25 July 1764.

Mary Johnson (10348)

Abandoned on 3 November 1758 Delivered to Edward Oakley, the reputed father on 9 November 1758.

Mary Price (2439)

Admitted in 1756. Returned to her parents, Samuel and Margaret Hyde, of Great Ormond Street, victualler, in 1761 when George Hyde, of Tottenham Court, brewer, and William Lewis, of Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, cabinet maker, stood sureties.

Jane Ford (17564)

Admitted in 1780 Delivered to her mother’s uncle George Nesbit, of Little Charlotte Street, Oxford Road, in 1787.

Abandoned at the age of six weeks in 1764 Returned to her mother Susanna Willis, of Barnet, Hertfordshire, in 1770.

Abandoned at two days old on 4 March 1759. Reclaimed on 13 March 1759 by Richard Deering, Grey Eagle Street, Spital Fields, grandfather, who stood surety.

Catherine Dunk (15731)

Abandoned in 1760 Attempt made by Mary Brown, Aldersgate Street, widow to reclaim child. Refused on the grounds that she had another child in the workhouse and was unable to maintain herself.

Timothy Worth (7432)

Admitted in 1758. Taken by force after seven months from nurse Hannah Callingham of Wick, Surrey, by two women and carried to Thorpe in Surrey.

George Boyce (8841)

Admitted on 3 June 1758. Taken way by fraud from nurse Elizabeth Chapman on 7 January 1760 (supposed by child’s parents).

Elizabeth Paget (13021)

Admitted on 6 June 1759 at eight days old. Delivered to mother Mary Curl, of Stevenage, Hertfordshire on 6 June 1759, she having been taken away by force.

Stephen Knox (9368)

Admitted in July 1758. Taken from nurse Elizabeth Russell of Odiam in Hampshire in September 1758, by a woman who went by the name of Martha Skull, pretending to be the mother.


Finding Birth Families Foundlings who attended the Hospital School later in the 1930s and 1940s had more success in tracing their birth families. The acceptance into the Hospital and the abandonment from their true families, determined the lives of the adult foundlings - their situation in the world and how they felt about it. Here they share their experiences of time spent at the School and the search for their birth families.

John was born in December 1926 and went to the Foundling Hospital in Redhill in 1932. When my foster mother, took me to the Redhill school, that was a very big wrench in my young life and I think it affected me for quite a long time. I didn’t realise of course at the time that my foster mother wasn’t my real mother, so it was like taking a child from his mother and dumping him in this ancient and quite forbidding place really. When I found my birth mother, I knew that I belonged to somebody, whereas before I didn’t belong to anybody. I’ve accepted her for what she was, a very caring person. Having met her children, they welcomed me with open arms once they realised that I had proved that I was who I said I was. It’s given me a family that I never knew existed, and it’s wonderful.

Ruth was born in 1937 and went to the Foundling Hospital School in Berkhamsted in 1942. As children we always played out this game of who our mothers were and they were always beautiful and important, they weren’t ever ordinary people. However, when I started searching for my birth mother, I slowly realised that I didn’t want to pursue it. If you turn over stones you have to take responsibility for what you find underneath, don’t you? Or you don’t do it. It’s not because I’ve firmly shut a door that I’m afraid to go through, it’s just one that I don’t want to pursue. I’ve had contact with people who have traced birth parents, not necessarily Foundlings, and have had mixed outcomes.


Charles never met his birth mother. She wrote many letters to the school, but he never saw them. Probably up until about 20-30 years ago, I lied a lot. If anyone asked me about my parents, I’d say they died when I was a child. I suppose we all felt we were abandoned and we weren’t wanted by our parents. I didn’t have any bitterness or resentment to anybody, I just thought if they’d abandoned me, so be it. My mother would have known me as letter Z 1935 and the school by looking at that, would have known who I was. I would have loved to have met my mother, as the negative thoughts I have about her would have been dispelled and I would have been able to have a bond with her.

“Could you please let me know if my baby boy is quite well and if he has any teeth. Also I have a little rabbit which I would like to send him but don’t know where to send it. Would you please let me know if any chocolate or biscuits may be sent for the babies, as I would like to send some for Christmas. Hoping that Terry is still well and would like his rattle and little lamb. I would like to know how he is progressing with his teeth and walking and talking. Also whether he has dark or fair hair and if it is curly or straight. I hope you will not think me too much of a worry but I would like to know as he is ever in my thoughts.”

John was born in April 1929 and went to the Foundling Hospital School in Redhill. He was 14 and when she was 15, and of course then things weren’t as they should be and they sent my mother away to the Diocese of Salisbury to be looked after in an unmarried mothers’ home. My grandfather said that had to happen because there was no-one at home to help look after my mum and me, so I ended up at the school. My mother worked in the washroom in Salisbury where she contracted TB and died at 18 years old. My abiding memory is the day I remember standing in the dormitory and looking out the window. And I stood there and I thought ‘Now I’m all alone. It’s me against the world’. And that’s the first time I ever thought, that I was somewhere different, that I was in a school, I wasn’t with my foster parents, that I was on my own.


Historical Background

The Foundling Hospital was set up in the mid 18th Century at a time when social conditions in London were difficult. One of the worst problems affected by the social conditions in London was the large numbers of children either entirely abandoned or thrown on the tender mercies of the parish - illegitimate children were handed over to parish officers for a lump sum. London was late in providing welfare for these children in comparison with many other European cities, puritan morality and disapproval of illegitimacy (the usual reason for deserted children) produced inaction in Britain.


The Need for Charity The only establishment dealing with foundlings as well as legitimate orphans was Christ’s Hospital, founded in 1552, but by 1676 the illegitimate were prohibited. In general, the only provision for illegitimate babies was the parish poorhouses or the workhouses where they frequently died of neglect. During the 1720s and 1730s poor children were dying at an alarming rate - medicine was not winning the battle against disease and decades of severe epidemics of typhus, dysentery, measles and influenza, were sweeping the nation with disastrous consequences. Mortality rates were extremely high: over 74% of children born in London died before they were five. In workhouses the death rate increased to over 90%. Parents of poor or illegitimate children had to choose between leaving them in the care of the parish poorhouses or giving them to the workhouse.

Mortality rates were extremely high: 74% of children died before the age of five The Foundling Hospital Buildings in the 1750s


Thomas Coram The Foundling Hospital, was established by Royal Charter in 1739, by Captain Thomas Coram. Coram was a successful shipwright and sailor who had returned to England to retire after a life’s work in the New World of America. He was appalled by the discarded and dying children in the streets of London and spent seventeen years campaigning for the establishment of a Foundling Hospital. This was met with much scepticism through the 1720s and 1730s with great opposition to the idea, partly because it was considered to encourage wantonness and prostitution. However, with the succession of a new King, came the growing custom for charity and benevolence. King George II signed the Charter on 17 October 1739 incorporating the Hospital for the ‘Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Young Children’. Thomas Coram’s involvement with the Hospital came to an end when he was effectively ousted in 1741. It appears that he had been publicly critical of several of his fellow Governors and staff members. Embarrassed by the public discussion, and concerned about the impact on their work, the Board closed ranks against Coram and he quickly became an outsider of the Hospital he had created. However, Coram continued to visit the Hospital, acting as godfather to more than twenty foundlings. Coram died on 29 March 1751 and was buried, in accordance with his wishes, beneath the altar of the Hospital Chapel.


The Foundling Hospital The Foundling Hospital was built on a site, in an area known for its good air, on the edge of London away from the insanitary and crowded conditions of the city. Designed by Theodore Jacobsen the plain brick building consisted of two wings either side a central chapel, built around an open courtyard. The western wing was finished in October 1745, with an Eastern wing added in 1752 in order to house the girls separately from the boys.

The Foundling Hospital Coat of Arms

The first foundlings were accepted to the Hospital in March 1741. Over the next decade and a half approximately 100 babies a year were taken in. While some babies were simply abandoned on the steps, others were taken in when parents couldn’t support them due to their economic or social situation. Though these parents must have believed that the Hospital offered a better future than they themselves could, it was still a heartwrenching decision and many hoped that they would one day reclaim their child when circumstances improved.

Admission of Children to the Hospital by Ballot (1749) Thomas Coram painted by William Hogarth (1740) (left)

The huge demand, with people often queuing outside the gates to leave their children, together with the lack of funds meant the Hospital’s Governors couldn’t take every child. Admission was restricted to babies aged 12 months or less, with only 20 children admitted each month. A ballot system was introduced, through which mothers had to draw a coloured ball from a bag; white meant that the child would be admitted, if healthy; red meant that they would be put on a waiting list and black meant that they were turned away.


By 1926 the Hospital Governors decided that London had become too dirty and polluted to bring up children, and the school moved temporarily to a site in Redhill, Surrey, before moving to a brand new, purpose built building in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire in 1935. The Foundling Hospital continued to operate until 1954, when the institutional model of child care became outdated. New social attitudes and approaches to childcare resulted in the Hospital placing the last remaining children in foster homes. Over its two hundred and fifty years of operation the Foundling Hospital cared for over 25,000 children. When the Hospital ceased to exist in 1954 the Hospital officially changed its name to the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. Now named Coram, the children’s charity continues today. Thomas Coram’s pioneering work with vulnerable children provides a living link with the original mission of the Foundling Hospital.

Today’s Charity Coram provides, develops and promotes best practice in the care of vulnerable children, young people and their families. They develop resilience in children and young people, enabling them to take responsibility for their own lives and achieve their full potential. Every year Coram gives direct help to 10,000 children, young people and their families through a range of programmes.

Current logo for the Coram Charity


Sources and Further Reading Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in The Eighteenth Century, Ruth McClure London’s Forgotten Children: Thomas Coram and The Foundling Hospital, Gillian Pugh www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk www.threadsoffeeling.com www.foundlingvoices.foundlingmuseum.org.uk www.londonlives.org www.austenonly.com www.bbc.co.uk/history www.telegraph.co.uk www.materialcultures.com www.familysearch.org www.oca1947.co.uk www.coram.org.uk

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Tokens of Life