I spent my time in London as a devoted student of the eighteenth century. As such, I gleefully skipped from museum to historic house slightly in awe of the wonderful collections the capital has to offer, rarely allowing myself to visit the same place twice for fear of missing out on something new. One of the exceptions I made was the Foundling Museum.
Tucked away just around the corner from Russell Square station, the museum holds a fascinating collection of items relating to the Foundling Hospital, a charitable institution whose founding principle was to provide “Maintenance and Education for Exposed and Deserted Young children.” Established after nearly two decades of campaigning by Captain Thomas Coram, the work of the hospital also offered unmarried mothers the chance to reinstate themselves into respectable society. It was perhaps this oft-maligned philosophy that contributed to its many teething problems in the early stages.
One poem of 1750 entitled Scandalizade undermined Coram’s benevolent intentions by proclaiming that such institutions would “Encourage the progress of vulgar Amours, The breeding of Rogues and th’increasing of Whores.” By offering a helping hand to poverty-stricken families and illegitimate children, they showed “how young maids may safely take a leap in the dark with their sweethearts… and pass for pure virgins.” Nevertheless, the Foundling Hospital defied its critics (and the misgivings of such notable Georgian personalities as Samuel Johnson) and over 27,000 children passed through its doors from 1739 to 1954 – with most of the early admittances being selected through a lottery owing to the huge number of applicants.
The Foundling Hospital also boasted the title of London’s first public art gallery, and the collection available to view today ranges from paintings by artists such as William Hogarth (initially used to raise revenue and stir public interest in the charity) to the heart-rending tokens mothers left with their children before being separated forever. Often bestowed upon a child as a means of identification should the family be able to reclaim them in future years, they can now only hint at the emotion and forlorn hope they once embodied. Such gifts, including buttons, rings inscribed with the infant’s name, a crudely sewn felt heart and a simple hazelnut shell, were never relayed to their intended recipients. Memories of their former life were erased, and all were re-baptised, most being named after contributors to the hospital.
It was a small glass case displaying a tiny sample of these tokens that drew me repeatedly back to the museum. The grandeur of the history of London is already so well-represented, but this gives a glimpse into the emotional lives of the less fortunate and offers a touching portrait of family life rent asunder. A new exhibition, Threads of Feeling, is inspired by these tiny and, at first glance, inconsequential, objects. Open until the 6th of March 2011, it promises a genuinely emotive sense of eighteenth-century family relationships.
The Foundling Museum: www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk