“It contained so much feeling, this piece of fabric cut from the dress of the baby being handed over by its mother, for life.” — Mollie Oldfield The Secret Museum (p. 88)
The Secret Museum tells the story of sixty objects, held in museum collections but not on public display. Most, if not all, museums have large numbers of items or whole collections that are kept in storage; sometimes because the items are too fragile or valuable and sometimes because there is simply no space.
The book itself is a bit unsatisfying; there seems to be no particular logic to her choice of item – except perhaps an expedience of finding several things in the same location to save on the travel budget. And perhaps most frustratingly, there are only very few – generally quite small – photos of the objects alongside some childish illustrations.
That aside, there are some interesting stories of quite fascinating objects. Of them all, the one that touched me most was that of the collection of tokens kept by the Foundling Hospital. Oldfield describes them thus:
When a mother left her baby she was asked to leave a token which would link her to her child, in case one day she was able to come back to claim him or her. Very often, the mother had nothing to leave so a piece of fabric was cut out of her dress, or the baby’s (baby’s clothes were usually made from their mother’s old clothes). The mother kept a fragment, and a matching fragment was attached to the registration billet that was kept for each child. (pp. 90-91)
The billets were kept in books, now held in the London Metropolitan Archives. The Foundling Museum has kept one book (in storage), and also displays some of the more robust tokens “mostly objects and trinkets left by mothers that would not fit inside the books” (p. 91)
The Foundling Hospital first opened in 1741 and was established by Thomas and Eunice Coram, to provide a home and a future for some of the hundreds of babies born in London who might otherwise have been abandoned. On its first night, thirty babies were taken in – as many as the hospital could cope with. By midnight mothers were being turned away.
The history of the Foundling Hospital is fascinating. It was incredibly well supported by wealthy Londoners as well as by artists, musicians and writers. The first performance of Handel’s Messiah was in given the Hospital’s chapel, Charles Dickens and William Hogarth were active supporters and today the Foundling Museum still holds a collection of work donated by Hogarth and other artists of the time, including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds.
The Foundling Hospital continued to provide institutional care to children until the 1950s and even nowadays is still an active charity supporting children’s causes; operating as the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children.
I couldn’t find a figure for how many children had been taken in by the Foundling Hospital over the course of its life, but Oldfield does say that between 1741 and 1760 16,282 children were admitted.
That’s 857 children a year – more than two a day.
She also says that of the sixteen thousand – only 152 were reclaimed by their mothers and that two thirds of the children admitted during the period died – usually from disease and malnutrition.
Oldfield describes the token belonging to one of the tiny minority re-united with his mother; a boy named Charles.
His mother, Sarah Bender, made a patchwork needle case from seven pieces of fabric, and on it she stitched a heart. Above the heart, created in red thread, she stitched the initials C (for Charles) and S (for Sarah). She cut the heart in two on 11 February 1767 when she handed Charles over, with his broken hearted token … (pp. 92-93)
At this point I was in tears.
I’ve written before (Earworm: moments of clarity and silly songs) about the post-natal depression I suffered after the boy-child’s birth and how, one night I snapped and was ready to take him back to the hospital and say “sorry, I’ve made a mistake.” I even got as far as thinking about what I’d pack for him – my version of a “token.”
What stopped me was realising that if I cared that much about what he should wear and the toy he should have with him, then I probably cared enough to persevere with being a mother.
The thing is – I had a choice. I was sleep-deprived and depressed – not homeless and hungry. Compared to the women who took their babies to the Foundling Hospital my feelings seem shallow and self-pitying. That’s not to downplay post-natal depression, just to put my sense of helplessness into a wider social and historical context.
I still have the first couple of tiny outfits we bought for the boy-child – and the stuffed tiger that slept in his cot with him at night. After I’d read Molly Oldfield’s account of the foundlings’ tokens, I felt the need to take these things out of their box and touch them again. It made me realise how much meaning we can invest in objects – a tiny onesie with cavorting penguins and a stripey tiger from the pier at Great Yarmouth. Out of context they are simply an item of baby’s clothing and a cheap toy. But to me they are tokens – of love and of remembrance.