The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square is to hold a fascinating exhibition entitled Threads of Feeling. The Foundling Museum was established as an independent organisation in 1998 by the childcare charity the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, which is today known as Coram. Coram is the successor organisation of the original Foundling Hospital.

I confess I’m very excited to be going to see this exhibition and I will of course report back in late October, but I thought you would appreciate advance notice of what is to be on show.

Its curator is Professor John Styles who has written about the Coram Foundation’s collection of rare 18th century fabrics in his magisterial book, The Dress of the People which I reviewed here.

The exhibition will showcase some of the thousands of pieces of 18th century fabrics in the Coram Foundation’s collection and will also  put on show some garments specially made to recreate the type of garments from which these scraps were taken.


The story behind these scraps of fabrics is intriguing. When a mother left her baby in the care of the Foundling Hospital (see here for a little of its history) they often left a token with the baby, to be kept as an identifying record. In a few cases the babies- if they survived-were later claimed by their mothers and this identifying token assisted in the reunion process, especially if the mother was illiterate.

Sometimes the token was an object, such as these  also in the Coram Foundation’s collection:

But often it was a small piece of fabric taken from the clothing worn by mother of the child which was then affixed to the child’s registration form and was subsequently bound in ledger, as shown below

Flowered Cotton(©Coram)

Or the token could merely have been some ribbons which had once been attached to the mother’s dress, as in this example here:


As Professor Styles comments:

The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous. It was a form of adoption, whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced. The mother’s name was not recorded, but many left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child. Occasionally children were reclaimed. The pieces of fabric in the ledgers were kept, with the expectation that they could be used to identify the child if it was returned to its mother.

And  this where they have been preserved for over 200 years, and now form the largest surviving collection of textiles worn by the ordinary people of London in the 18th century. Historically they are very important, providing fascinating insights into the type of fabrics and clothing worn by ordinary people, clothes which rarely survived more than a few years before being recycled into children’s clothes, cleaning cloths and rags etc.

The exhibition will be held in the Foundling Hospital Museum which is in Brunswick Square. Which was the foundations original home and also note, the home of John and Isabella Knightley in Emma on account of its good air ( which was an important part of the decision in assessing the  location of the Foundling Hospital too) and was also the home from which the foundling Harriet Smith was reunited with Robert Martin.How appropriate.

The exhibition runs from the 14 October 2010 until the  6 March 2011, and I do hope some of you will be able to visit it.