Legacy of a Foundling

In light of International Women’s day, Emma Sibbald reports on a piece of Britain’s history which helped to give women a voice in the darkest of times

London is a forgetful city, especially for those unmade by its gruelling reality. Census records, birth certificates, and court records can note the existence of a majority of its inhabitants, but it is a skeletal sketch: a person’s name, date of birth, date of death. They do not set down the words and lives of those individuals deemed irrelevant to the cultural narrative. My grandmother’s mother was lost in this way, the workhouse records where she had my grandmother were lost in a fire. Women often vanish into history, made voiceless by the bureaucracy of others, and by their own illiteracy. You cannot record your own life without the personal empowerment and privilege that education provides. So how do we explore secret things, shameful things? How do we discuss specifically female circumstances; birth, pregnancy, sex and sex work, when setting such things down was either impossible or taboo? How do we wring the lived experience of these women from the shrouds of history, without relying on a written tradition?


The answer is tactile. Textiles, fashion and dress can communicate profoundly intimate personal histories. They physically connect us with the past, a material link. The Foundling Hospital in Lamb’s Conduit’s Fields, Bloomsbury, willed into existence in 1741 by the determination of a man named Thomas Coram, is the centre of this embroidered history. Coram was horrified by the sight of children abandoned, by way of poverty, illegitimacy and betrayal, to succumb to the elements on the banks of the Thames, and so created an institution to take in these children, to alleviate the social pressures forced upon the City by inadequate Poor Laws and population explosion. The Hospital’s archives now hold the largest collection of 18th century everyday textiles in existence – the Foundling Hospital’s adoption system required mothers to bring a small piece of fabric, called a ‘token’ when giving up a child as a form of anonymous identification.

Coram understood the distinct power of textiles for the disenfranchised: although these women might not have had the literacy to find a bureaucratic number or even read their own name, the individual patterns of a token of fabric could be used as confirmation for those determined to return to claim their child. Although this was admittedly rare, the records were still reverently maintained, and are now a vital window into the everyday lives of the women bringing their children to the Hospital. They range from the simple, ancient threadbare wools and tweeds, to sumptuous Spitalfields silks, evidence of great wealth. Cockades and rosettes abound, evidence of gender differentiations in childhood dress, sleeves are sewn from the cut offs of a mother’s own costume. They are a historical language, a visceral link to emotive connections in the lives of women, who might not turn up elsewhere.

The textiles are, at their essence, wildly moving. Thomas Hardy’s famous quote; “it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs” rings brutally true, but for women, fashion and dress is a vital language of its own. In the eighteenth century, ribbons were “universally recognised symbols of love, especially in circumstances of separation or loss”, given as gifts between lovers, and worn prominently, or close to the body, knotted for greater intensity, in a codified, unwritten language of attachment. In the context of foundlings, they become tangible messages of deep significance: of apology, desperation, eternal affection. Not all the children came from romantic stories of thwarted maternal love; a percentage of foundlings were indeed desperately ill, malnourished, even mistreated. But the are evidence of the inner determinations of women, their inner feelings. One token in particular underlines this determination – it is a piece of linen, printed with dots and red flowers, and accompanied by a note. ‘Florella Burney’, is inked across it ‘Born june the 19: 1758: In the Parish Off St. Anns So Ho not Baptize’d pray Let partuiclare Care be Taken’en off this Child, As it will be call’d for Again…”.

Contemporary arguments against the Hospital are familiar, even now. Detractors believed that it would make women complacent with their virtue – if they could abandon their unwanted children at the Hospital, there would be no motivation to ‘avoid vice’, and the services of the Hospital would thus empower women to sin. Some commentators in the US still perpetuate the myth that if access to abortion clinics is readily available, then women ‘just won’t bother’ to use contraception, or will take advantage of the system for their own ‘frivolous’ reasons. But although the sense of separation and loss is palpable in many of the tokens, Coram maintained a policy that empowered female agency. No-one attempted to convince women to work through their distress – workers at the Hospital were utterly prohibited from questioning or interviewing women on their reasoning for leaving the child. Their personal independence was enshrined as an inalienable right; the radical empathy of the Hospital’s ethos faced the world as it was.

My grandmother was not a foundling at the Hospital, but at a workhouse, a corrupted descendent of Coram’s original vision. But in the absence of a traditional understanding of my ancestry, I will trace part of myself back to the lightning-fire of Thomas Coram’s commitment to compassion, to the stories of the women caught in a web of stigma and pain, to the institutions founded to alleviate (and sometimes punish) their struggle. It is certainly a chequered history – I think I am so drawn to the story of the Foundling Hospital because its early inception feels so enlightened in comparison to the brutish elements of later attempts at social care – but it is a fascinating one. The Foundling Museum in London is a hidden gem, and well worth a visit. These ‘threads of feelings’ (as described by John Styles) are an integral part of a hidden but vital element of the history of women, trapped by circumstance, but redeemed by compassion.





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