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Sunday, 6 March 2011

threads of feeling

Early start yesterday, after clearing the frost from my car windscreen, we drove to the coach station to catch the 8.35 to London. I "volunteered" my DH to come with me, to visit the "Threads of Feeling" exhibition at the Foundling Museum. I wrote on this blog about the book of the same name, which was published alongside the exhibition.

                            I read the book, I was prepared, or so I thought. How naive!

Meet Thomas Coram, who came from England, but spent many years in America. You can read more about him here. After he experienced a great shortage of labour in America, we was appalled on his return to England by the number of homeless and destitute children in London and the total disregard for a human life on the streets of the capital.
He campaigned for many years for the establishment of the Hospital and eventually, the London Foundling Hospital was founded by a Royal Charter in 1739.

This is the Foundling Museum, which stand on the site where the Hospital used to be. You can read the whole history of the Hospital here if you click on "Foundling Hospital" which is in red.

The exhibition "Threads of Feeling" covers the period in the Hospital's history in the years between 1740 - 1770.
Initially only babies under 2 months were admitted, later under one year. To stop babies being just dumped on the doorstep, they were admitted anonymously. However, the mothers were encouraged to leave a token, by which the child could be identified sometime in the future, should they want to claim the child back. Only about 1 % of children were ever reclaimed. The tokens were of various sorts, from metal trinkets, keys, buttons, coins, simply small everyday objects, even a hairpin. However, only about a half of the children admitted to the Hospital had a token left with them. Most of the tokens were a small pieces of fabrics, scraps of clothing, ribbons etc. The tokens were kept with the registration form of each child and the registration forms were kept together in large ledgers. In the period covered by the exhibition there were 5 000 pieces of fabrics left at the Hospital, which now form the largest collection of 18th century fabrics in England. It is some of this collection which has been on show.

At the start, I must admit, I was disappointed by the size of the room in which the collection is exhibited. But the Museum is a small one, with no large rooms and they are making most of the space they have.
With the number of visitors it wasn't always easy to see and read all the exhibits. Never the less, it gets hold of you and it is not surprising that many people suddenly develop that runny nose. My DH left the room early, he could not read any more.
Many mothers or their families were anxious for the children to keep their identity and wrote their names and various massages on the fabrics and ribbon. Not being able to take photographs, it is hard to remember too many of the stories, but to illustrate, this one was a heart shape cut out of paper, with words : "my name is Robert Cutler, I was Christened 10 February 1750, my mother was buried at the same time." The heart had a black ribbon in the shape of a cross attached to it.
The fabric tokens are from a large variety of fabrics, mainly patterned and bright, because the purpose was to identify the child. Some have been embroidered, with various stitches, there is even a piece of a blackwork. But there are many plain, everyday fabrics. One token was a needle case, cut in half.

This is a part of the exhibition programme. Hopefully, if you click on the picture, you will be able to read it.

Initially, the Hospital limited the numbers they admitted, to be able to cope. The child mortality at the Hospital was much lower then on the outside, were it was about 75%. They also screened the babies and only the healthy were admitted. Later the Parliament gave the Hospital £10,000, but in return they demanded that all the the children presented would be admitted. The mortality increased dramatically.
The Hospital decided to return to their original system. The Parliament asked for their money back. The Hospital actually managed to repay it.
After the admission to the Hospital, the baby was sent to a "Nurse". They employed many Nurses, mainly in the country, farmer's wife etc, who would looked after the child in his first years. On the whole, this was a happy time for the children, although they were some stories of a cruelty. At the age of 3 -6 years, after a carefree life in the country, the child had to be return to the Hospital. One can only imagine the heart break this caused, not only to the children, but to their Nurses too. Some Nurses adopted a child in their care, but this was a very small number.
On their return to the Hospital, the children started to be trained, the girls in domestic skills, to prepare them for a life in service, the boys in various manual skills, also for the army and the navy.
There is a wedding photograph of a former foundling boy. He sent it to the Hospital, as he had no one else to send it to.
Later, other Foundling Hospitals were open around the country, in Birmingham and Dublin, to name a couple. The Dublin one had a very bad name, the nuns who looked after the babies were called the Nuns of Death, as most of the babies in their care died.

You can find out more about the exhibition here (BBC film about the exhibition) and here (The online exhibition). Thank you, Susan, for the information on your blog.

The Museum is planning a follow up exhibition, from 1770 right up to 1954, when the Hospital ceased to exist. However, the work of the Hospital continues, be it in another form, as a charity named after it's founder, Coram, making it the oldest children charity in UK.

Recently I met a very talented lady, in her late seventies. She looks Mediterranean and her first name is Spanish. After we introduced ourselves to each other, she asked me about my name and where I come from, which I was very please to tell her. I asked her the same question. She told me that she doesn't know where she is from or what her real name is, she doesn't know what her real birthday is, she doesn't know anything about her origin.
Just think about the last sentence for a minute.......
She was a foundling.


  1. An absolute wonderful post Radka.
    Glad you managed to get there for what seems like an exhibition that was a must see.

  2. Arh Radka im sad i never got to go but feel i like i learnt alot from reading this....and the poor women who was a foundling how wonderful to have met her xx

  3. Radka, thanks for describing your visit to the museum and for all the information contained there.

    Your posts are always so interesting and full of food for thought.

  4. Wow long and interesting story, I hope I understodd most of it ;-)

  5. Thank you for taking the time to post about your visit. I found your entire story to be I was there myself. Thank you radka!

  6. Great post Radka, very thought provoking, interesting, and something that needed to be put out there. I did not know such a place existed, yet realized that things like this had gone on in the past. How dreadful to live one's life not really 'belonging'. Thank you sincerely for sharing this with your friends.

  7. Hello Radka, What a very interesting and lovely story thanks for sharing. Hugs Judy

  8. What an interesting place to visit. The history of these places, no matter how sad, are very interesting to read.


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