As you know I’ve long been fascinated by the history of the Foundling Museum, and am convinced it was partly due to its presence in Brunswick Square that Jane Austen effected the reconciliation of Robert Martin and the near foundling Harriet Smith there in Emma.
The Museum is a fascinating place, and its raison d’être of accepting unwanted children is poignant. Recently they have published a small booklet on the subject of their famous Tokens, which form part of the Museum’s collection. They very kindly sent me a copy and it is that copy which is under review here today.
The tokens are small items that were left behind with children when they were accepted into the care of the hospital, and were used as identifiers, should the child’s parent wish to reclaim it. We have looked at the fabric tokens before, in my account of the Musuem’s Threads of Feeling exhibition, curated by John Styles. This booklet does mention them, but concentrates on the other, mostly tiny objects, that were left with the children. As the director of the museum, Caro Howell, writes in the forward to the book:
In telling the story of the Foundling Hospital, which continues today as the children’s charity Coram, the Foundling Museum can draw upon a wonderful collection of art by Hogarth and his contemporaries; eighteenth century interiors, furniture and artefacts; archival material relating to the life and work of Handel; and the testimonies of both former pupils and looked-after children today. Yet for many visitors it is the tokens that leave the biggest impression.
The tokens were usually sealed within the billet , that is, the admission document written for each child. They were kept on deposit a the Hospital and were not opened again unless the child was claimed, and the token was used as a means of identifying the parent who had given the child up to the Hospital’s care. At the point when the child was accepted by the Hospital all its family links were severed, and it was given a new name, hence the need for its identifying object for future reconciliations. In 1858 John Brownlow, the then Secretary of the Hospital, brought the existence of these tokens to the notice of the Committee of Governors. They decided to take some of the tokens from the billets and place them on display. Interestingly Brownlow had once been a foundling at the Hospital, and it has been suggested that it was Charles Dickens’regard for him, that made him adopt the name of Brownlow for Oliver Twist’s benefactor, and the man who finally proved Oliver’s identity. Brownlow the foundling eventually rose above his humble beginnings to become the Hosptial’s Secretary, historian and archivist
Sadly, though this action brought the world’s attention to these tokens (and, of course, the stories of the children and their parents that the tokens represented) separating them from their billets meant that the original links with the children were broken and lost, and it has been a mammoth task for the authors of the booklet to try to reunite the tokens with their original billets, in order to decipher the human story and significance of the token donated with the child. So far it has taken them eight years,and the research into the tokens is on-going.
The tokens can be classified into three main categories- written, halved and tangible tokens. Some are combined into more than one category- for example, playing cards, often used as a token were tangible objects, something that could be written on and also something that could be halved( the parent keeping one half, the other was deposited with the Hospital). The authors of the book have researched the links back to the children and have also worked hard to identify the identifiers, some of which are very small, damaged or so obscure as to be virtually unknown to the modern eye.
For example, this engraved piece of mother of pearl was one identifying object. It was inscribed with the words:
James son of James Concannon Gent , law or now of Jamaica 1757
The authors have discovered that James’ billet entry reveals he was two months old when he was admitted to the Hospital.
“A note in educated hand writing states he was born on the 18th September 1757 , baptised and registered at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London on 4th september and “put in the house on 23rd November” his unusual surname enabled the record of his baptism at St Sepulchre to be found which names his parents as James and Elizabeth Concanon.
He may have been left behind while his mother accompanied his father on military service in the West INdes, for the authors of the book have discovered that a Lieutenant James Concannon served in the Royal Artillery at that time. James was renamed “Raymond Kent” and he survived and was placed by the Hospital as an apprentice with a Farmer and Slater at Thorpe Hesley in Yorkshire.
One of the more famous tokens which has some resonance for we Janeites- is the gambling fish, which Jane Austen mentioned in Pride and Prejudice.
The child connected to this ivory gambling token was a five week old boy, who was named John Cox by the Hospital. The authors of the book have had to become expert on these tiny objects- coins, jewels, fabrics, etc – in order to try and understand why they were left with children and what they might tell us about the parent and their circumstances. The research really does make for absorbing reading.
This booklet is a slim volume-32 pages long, but it is a fascinating story- part historical, part detective,-of the reuniting of these very moving tokens with the identity of the child whose parents deported them- for whatever reason-into the care of the Foundling Hospital. I can throughly recommend it to you.
You can purchase the book directly from the Museum Shop : go here to find all the details of this and other publications issued by the Museum, and for details of how to order by mail.