This being the title of the new exhibition at the Foundling Museum.
The Curator looked at me slightly oddly when I remarked that in the general scheme of things, the tokens were more important in the museum than the paintings, rooms, furniture and all the rest of it. But I think she saw where I was coming from. And I think it’s true.
The tokens are what this exhibition is all about. What are they? When babies and toddlers were left at the Foundling Hospital, the parent (in most cases the mother), left an object that would later be used as an identifier if the child was re-claimed. Most often it was a piece of jewellery – a ring, earring, hairclip, string of beads. Sometimes the parent couldn’t even manage that: there’s a hazelnut here, and there a shell. Each item was attached to the checking-in document for the child, the Billet Page. Sometimes the parent would leave a note or letter. I’m always struck how many of these people at the poorest and bottom rung were literate. Not just literate, but having absolutely beautiful handwriting in many cases.
Virtually all the billet pages for the Foundling Hospital have survived and are kept at the Metropolitan Archives. During the Victorian period, the officers of the Hospital decided to separate and store all the old tokens. From an academic perspective, this was a very bad move. For the past decade or so a small team of researchers has been re-uniting token with billet page, and therefore child and possibly even parent.
Fate, Hope & Charity is an exhibition which is all about this particular work in progress. So we have a good several dozen tokens on display and the stories behind them. They are all deeply fascinating. One is about William Hunter the famous surgeon. In 1767, he promised the well-to-do family of an unmarried and pregnant daughter that he would take care of matters. In the event, she had twins, and Hunter dropped them both off at the hospital, signed them in and left playing cards as tokens. The other is about Margaret Larney, who was arrested and incarcerated at Newgate Prison for “coining” (shaving or clipping of silver or gold coins), technically treason and a capital offence. Because she was pregnant, she had a stay of execution. However, once he child was born, it and an elder brother were deposited at the Foundling and Margaret was burned at the stake at Tyburn. Horrid.
Exhibitions about the foundlings are always deeply poignant and sad. But we must always remind ourselves of the prevailing conditions for the poorest in society and their children in the 18C and 19C. The hospital should always be celebrated for the work it did.
Like all of the Foundling Museum’s special exhibitions, Fate, Hope & Charity is wonderfully researched and beautifully staged. It runs until the 19 May. Entrance is included in the entry price, which is £7.50. Concessions apply.