The written notes left with some of the children are among the most poignant of those that survive. Often inscribed on small fragments of paper in poorly formed hands and with little punctuation, they speak much more eloquently than their writers could of the poverty many of the babies came from.
Some are simple and factual, just stating the baby’s given name and birth date. Others give a bit more detail about the child’s life thus far, perhaps using the standard narrative form required when applying for poor relief. The five-month-old baby boy abandoned on 7 February 1759 and named Joseph Took by the hospital, carried a note describing him as:
Richard Son of Elnor Billingsly Born in the Parrish of Tong Babtised by Thomas all the 4 of October 1758 in the County of Srophshire
By leaving these details his mother was establishing not only his name and parentage but the place where he could claim a parish settlement. Sadly, Joseph died only two weeks after his admission, of convulsions.
Many other notes were more formal accounts written by church and parish officials or occasionally midwives through whose hands the babies had passed. Some were clearly indemnifying them against a charge that the child had been taken from the mother by force. Others, though, show us more of the bond between the mother and her child, and a little of the anguish of giving them up.
The person who gave up little Jemes Ingall (renamed Anthony Den) on 2 February 1757 not only wrote down his name and the date, but the hope that he would be reclaimed:
Pray Lett his be keep as a tockin That he may be known when Sircomstances will admit.
Like so many others, he died only a month or so later. Some expressed the wish that the baby would be christened with a specified name, though this was never done, to preserve anonymity; others stated that the child had not yet been baptised, perhaps as a quiet plea that this be carried out by the Hospital.
Occasionally we see greater literary skill, like the occasional note written as if from the child, which makes for particularly poignant reading. Martha Tekwell came into the hospital on 29 March 1755 bearing a note which read
My father and mother I durst not own Untill that I can run alone.
She did grow up to ‘run alone’, leaving the hospital as an apprentice in May 1765, but she was not reunited with her parents. Baby Ann Mersham, meanwhile, came in with a note which ended with the plea ‘Pray let her be suckeld’ (breast-fed). Not all ‘written’ tokens were on paper either; some carried messages of protection or love embroidered onto ribbons, while other notes were cut into meaningful shapes like hearts, or torn in half so that the child carried one and the parent kept the other.
The babies left during the period of the General Reception [1756–60, when every child brought to the hospital was admitted] were less likely to have such expressive notes, the parents perhaps feeling less of a need to make a good case for them, or less likely to intend to come back some day. We should beware of assuming that that the parting was less difficult for them though. Certainly the written tokens that we have reveal a myriad of stories of loss and heartache, of care and hope for the future.