Most of the tokens in the Foundling Museum collection are coins, medals and discs in silver, brass and copper. At first glance, they may not seem as personal as other objects and hand-made items used as tokens, but in fact many of them were highly significant to the people who chose them.
There are coins of the reigns of Edward VI (reigned 1547–1553) to George III (reigned 1760–1820). Coins also came from across Europe and its colonies around the world. Many were made individual by cutting notches or punching holes in them or by marking them with initials and dates. These can all be read as efforts to create unique tokens that would work when the time came for a claim to be made.
Unusual coins did not need personalising but were often mentioned in an accompanying note. Many reflect the particular historical circumstances in which they were produced. For example, a metal shortage in the 1650s meant low-value coins were very scarce. This disrupted everyday transactions, so some businesses minted their own trade tokens to be used as small change. One such coin, used as a Foundling token, was produced by a vintner under his own name, James Partrich of Royston (spelt ‘Rooyston’ on the token).
During the 1688–1691 war in Ireland, coins of base metal were produced under James II to pay his troops. These would be exchanged for silver if he won the war (which he did not). This coinage is known as ‘gun money’, because of the idea that it was produced from melted down firearms.
In the early 1720s, British mine-owner William Wood produced coins for use in North America (then under British colonial rule). He made the coins underweight in order to make a profit from the venture. His ‘Rosa Americana’ coins were rejected by American colonists for being light weight and two eventually became Foundling tokens. Other notable coin tokens include counterfeit coins and ‘copyright’ coins of specific weights, used to check the value of precious metal coins in circulation.
Families also parted with long-held medals issued to mark notable events such as coronations or celebrate military victories.
Parents probably chose such medals as ‘unique’ objects to use as tokens, but in several cases two of same medal was used. Personalisation was a more reliable way to make a unique token. Sir Isaac Newton’s commemorative medal still shows fine holes drilled across the centre to make it easier to cut it in half, presumably so that one half could be left with the child, the other kept by the parent.
Many parents seem to have chosen objects that they might have handled daily, perhaps kept in their pocket. Examples include pocket calendar medals, tickets to a pleasure garden and a lecture series, a pass for a private road, and Masonic Lodge membership pass. We don’t know whether the parents were the original owners, or whether they found or were given these once they were out of date. When they had personal significance, they allowed the parent to give something of themselves as a token.
The Collection includes many plain polished discs of silver and copper which often started life as coins. Some are simply marked, others professionally engraved. 25 have the original full name of the child (which would be changed at the Hospital) and their date of birth. These make good starting points for tracing their families. Two even give the precise time of birth, which plainly had some significance.
It seems likely that creating ‘identity discs’ such as these was a more common practice, not confined to children admitted to the Foundling Hospital. One disc used as a token is dated 1739, two years before the Hospital began admitting babies.
Other discs were more clearly created specifically for the situation, expressing parents’ feelings on parting with their children.