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Foundling Hospital Tokens © The Foundling Museum, London

Foundling Hospital Tokens © The Foundling Museum, London

I thought you all would appreciate advance notice of the Foundling Hospital’s next major exhibition. It is to be entitled, Fate, Hope and Charity, and will tell, for the first time the stores behind some of the Museum’s most famous tokens. These tokens were left behind by foundling children’s parents as identifiers.You may recall that the Threads of Feeling exhibition curated by Professor John Styles examined the fabric tokens that exist in the Museum’s collection. This was fascinating and a well deserved critical success. Threads of Feeling will soon be on display at Colonial Williamsburg and I do hope many of you will take that opportunity to see it.

The forthcoming  exhibition in London concentrates on the physical tokens, and you can see some of them  above and below.

Foundling Hospital Tokens © The Foundling Museum, London

Foundling Hospital Tokens © The Foundling Museum, London

This is what the Museum’s Press release has to say about the exhibit:

By reuniting the eighteenth century tokens with the foundlings to whom they belong, Fate, Hope & Charity uncovers stories, which are a testament to the grief of separation and ever lasting bond between a mother and her child. Tokens, small everyday objects, were left by mothers with their babies at the Foundling Hospital, which continues today as children’s charity Coram. Left between c.1741 -1760, tokens were a means of identification should the mother ever return to reclaim her child. Hundreds of these small items were removed from the Hospital’s admission records in the 1860s, severing links with their history-until now. 

Now over 250 years later these incredible, heart wrenching stories are revealed. Each story offers a glimpse into the lives of the women in the eighteenth century who left their children at the Hospital. Most poignant of all is the story of Margaret Larney.

Margaret Larney's Letter ©The Foundling Museum

Margaret Larney’s Letter ©The Foundling Museum

Under sentence of death in Newgate Prison in 1757, Margaret, falsely tried and found guilty of counterfeiting money, wrote a letter requesting the admission of her unborn child to the Foundling Hospital. Her newborn son was lucky and was admitted. Margaret was less fortunate. Immediately after the birth, she was taken to Tyburn where she was executed by “strangulation and burning”! Her astonishing letter of petition to the Hospital will be on display and is shown above.

 Individual stories will be told through their tokens, which include coins, jewellery, buttons, poems, playing cards and a simple nut, together with art works and artefacts from the period. Many of the tokens address issues that are still current today; the hardship faced by military wives and widows and childbirth debates around the benefits of male doctors versus female midwives. 

The stories behind these tokens have been unearthed by Janette Bright and Dr Gilliam Clarke, who are also the authors of  the booklet, An Introduction to the Tokens at the Foundling Museum, which I reviewed, here. The Museum’s Press Release tells us that:

A chance meeting in 2005 in the Hospital archive united textile artist, Janette, and social historian Gillian, whose earlier work on the Foundlings includes the time they spent with foster families outside London. Through their exhaustive detective work, orphaned tokens have been reunited with their foundlings. The new research reveals fascinating information about the tokens themselves, the circumstances surrounding the mother’s decision to give up her baby and the moving stories of the individual foundlings to whom the tokens belonged.

The Foundling Museum has also commissioned prominent artists, authors, songwriters and musicians to create new stories for these tokens in their chosen medium. Contributors will include artist, David Shrigley and DJ, poet and writer, Charlie Dark, folk group ,The Unthanks and poet and novelist, Jackie Kay. Collected in a special publication to coincide with the exhibition, these stories will shed new light on the small, poignant scraps of history that make up Fate, Hope & Charity which will be curated by Stephanie Chapman.

As you know I favour the theory that Jane Austen chose to reunite the star-crossed lovers, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, in Brunswick Square as a nod to the Foundling Hospital’s existence, especially given Harriet’s status as the natural daughter of somebody, who was, at that point, unknown. She had a happy ending…others were not so lucky as she. I shall look forward to visiting the Museum to see their stories. The exhibition will run from Thursday 25 January – Sunday 19 May 2013

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