The Foundling Museum’s Collection contains many treasures associated with the Foundling Hospital. However, it is often the humblest objects which leave the greatest impression on our visitors, namely the eighteenth-century tokens.
History of the Foundling Hospital tokens
In 1741 when the Hospital first opened its doors, mothers were asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary’. Since babies were renamed on admission, a system had to be created whereby a returning mother was able to be reunited with the baby she had handed over to the care of the Hospital. Between the 1740s and 1760s the procedure involved a swatch of fabric being cut from the baby’s clothes and then cut in half; one half was attached to the child’s admission paper or ‘billet’ on which was written the child’s unique admission number, while the other half was given to the mother. By keeping the swatch and remembering the date her baby was admitted, a mother could provide the Hospital with the information needed to identify the child.
However, in the event that the little piece of fabric was lost or the date of admission forgotten, mothers also left an object unique to them – a token – as a means of identification. These everyday items range from found objects such as coins, medals and jewellery, to personalised items created for this purpose such as poems, needlework and inscribed medallions. Pennies are some of the most common tokens and these were frequently personalised with engravings, inscriptions and punctures to ensure they were not mistaken for another’s. Once the admission information was taken the billet was folded up and sealed with the token inside, never to be opened unless a claim was made, meaning these little fragments of maternal hope were never seen by the children. At some point in the mid-nineteenth century the billets were opened and some of the more interesting tokens were put on display in the Hospital however, no one thought to make a note of which tokens belonged to which baby, so the majority of the tokens are themselves orphans.
I was taken up to the Picture Gallery and ... Mr Nichols, the school Secretary wanted to see me before I went into hospital … beside the pictures on the wall were two or three showcases… there was nothing to say what it was, but I knew instantly what it was. There was all little tokens in there ... bits of ribbon, bits of lace, buttons, bits of material, bits of tickets, coins ... I knew instantly that these were things that … mothers had left to be able to identify their child by ... I suppose they all hoped at some stage … I was just transfixed by this ... I kept wondering what my mother had left with me. Not realising, at that stage, that that system had finished years before … It was just a heart-breaking moment.
Robert Cox, former pupil
The custom of leaving tokens with babies lasted until the 1760s, when receipts were introduced. However, the system was so established that babies continued to be left with tokens so that by 1790 they numbered over 18,000. You can see a collection of tokens and discover their accompanying stories in our Introductory Gallery. A small selection is available to view below.
Researching the tokens
Research into the tokens has revealed some of the circumstances surrounding parents’ decisions to give up their baby, as well as the poignant stories of the foundlings to whom they belonged. This research is ongoing however, it is likely that many tokens will never be reunited with their infant owners and it is this air of mystery, separation and loss that prompts such a strong reaction from our visitors.