Foundling Hospital tokens
Fate, Hope & Charity

Fate, Hope & Charity

40 Brunswick Square London WC1N 1AZ
25 Jan 2013 — 19 May 2013
  • Exhibitions & Displays
This exhibition revealed the heart-wrenching stories of the Foundling Hospital tokens, over 250 years after they were left by mothers with their babies

Tokens – small everyday objects – were left by mothers with their babies at the Foundling Hospital between c.1741 – 1760, as a means of identification, should the mother ever return to reclaim her child. Most of the tokens were textiles, which were pinned to the admission records, but there were also hundreds of small, three-dimensional objects – keys, coins, jewellery, buttons, poems, playing cards, medals. Most were removed from the Hospital’s admission records in the nineteenth century, severing the link with the children they were meant to identify. By reuniting tokens with the foundlings to whom they belonged, Fate, Hope & Charity uncovered stories that are a testament to the grief of separation and the timeless bond between a mother and her child.

Most poignant of all is the story of Margaret Larney. Under sentence of death in Newgate Prison in 1757, Margaret, falsely tried and found guilty of counterfeiting money, wrote a letter requesting the admission of her unborn child to the Foundling Hospital. Her newborn son was lucky and was admitted. Margaret was less fortunate. Immediately after the birth, she was taken to Tyburn (the modern Marble Arch) where she was publicly executed by “strangulation and burning.” Her astonishing letter of petition to the Hospital was displayed in the exhibition.

This exhibition was the result of painstaking research by Museum volunteers and independent researchers Janette Bright and Dr. Gillian Clark. Through a process of exhaustive detective work, the two researchers reunited orphaned tokens with their foundlings. What they discovered reveals fascinating and often deeply moving facts about the tokens themselves, the circumstances surrounding the mother’s decision to give up her baby and the stories of the individual foundlings to whom the tokens belonged.

Fate, Hope & Charity was curated by Stephanie Chapman.

Contemporary Commission

Despite meticulous investigation, many tokens’ stories remain undiscovered. The Museum commissioned prominent artists, authors, songwriters and musicians to create new stories for these tokens. Contributors included artist David Shrigley, DJ, poet and writer Charlie Dark, author and academic Hallie Rubenhold and poet and novelist Jackie Kay. Their work is collected in a special publication to coincide with the exhibition, available form the Museum Shop, and their stories shed new light on the small, emotionally-charged scraps of history that make up Fate, Hope & Charity.

Supported by

  • Hidden stories unfold through scraps of Georgian life

    Lucy Vickery, Spectator
  • A heart-wrenching exploration of the tokens

    Art Quarterly
  • a fascinating chronicle of women’s lives in this era

    Ruth Hazard, Culture24