Between the 1740s and 1760s, mothers leaving their babies at the Foundling Hospital would also leave a small object as a means of identification. The hope was that they would one day be able to reclaim their child.

Children were renamed on admission, so the token would help prove their relationship. Each object was kept in the Hospital archive, not given to the child. There are around 400 tokens in the Foundling Museum Collection, with many thousands more paper and textile ones in the Archives, giving us extraordinary glimpses into eighteenth-century society and individual lives.

Visit our online exhibition Tokens of History and discover how historians have used the tokens as passports to Georgian London to illuminate a different facet of eighteenth-century life – from courtship, entertainment and fashion, to Empire and belief.

Researching the tokens

When a mother left a token with her child, it would be folded up inside the completed admissions paper, or ‘billet’. This would never be opened unless a parent returned to claim their child. But in the nineteenth century, Governors of the Hospital decided to put some of the tokens on display. No one thought to make a note of which token belonged to which child.

Thanks to painstaking research, we can now reconnect some tokens to individuals. These ‘reunited’ tokens tell us stories of parents forced to give up their baby, and the future life of their child. Research is ongoing but it’s likely that we will never unlock the stories behind all of the tokens.

Insights into the tokens shared here draw on the work of many researchers, notably Janette Bright, Gillian Clark and John Styles. If you have any additional information about the tokens or about individuals who have been traced from the Hospital’s eighteenth-century records, we would love to hear from you.

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