LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of fabric pieces left with abandoned children in 18th century London have been put on display in a new show illustrating the heart-rending moment when a mother gives up her child.
“Threads of Feeling” at the Foundling Museum is Britain’s largest collection of everyday textiles from the period and displays pieces of fabric, small tokens or objects kept to identify some of the more than 4,000 children left at the original Foundling Hospital in London between 1741 and 1760.
When children were left at the hospital a piece of fabric or a token was kept with their file to help identify the child, should the family return for her or him, although some children were presented to the hospital by people other than parents.
Exhibition curator John Styles said that the mother’s name was not recorded, but many families left personal notes or letters exhorting the hospital to care for their child.
“Occasionally children were reclaimed,” Styles said. “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.”
Founded by Thomas Coram in 1741, the hospital quickly became a well-known alternative for mothers who struggled with poverty and those who gave up children as a result of the shame attached to conceiving a child outside marriage.
A coarse, striped linen fabric is attached to the file for one child, Foundling 9161, which says it came with a boy admitted from the Rotherhithe workhouse in July 1758, who was “Baptize Christopher William Sr.”
A pink and white flowered ribbon left with Foundling 7000, is attached to the file of a girl admitted January 1758 and carries a letter stating that her name is Ann Gardiner and giving her parents’ names as James and Elizth., alongside a baptism date and parish of registration.
“Begs to have care Taken of her and They will pay all Charges in a little Time with a handsome acknowledgement for the same and have her Home again when they Get over a little Trouble they are in: She is not a bastard Child your Care will be most Gratefully Acknowledged by your most obliged Humble Servant JG,” the letter states.
Ragged cloth torn from a dress, a piece cut from a child’s clothing, lovingly embroidered linen, ribbons and pieces of cotton are all on display, telling tales of poverty and destitution, which drove desperate families to leave children at the hospital.
“The process of giving over a baby to the hospital was anonymous,” Styles said.
“It was a form of adoption whereby the hospital became the infant’s parent and its previous identity was effaced.”
Some mothers created their own original pieces by sewing patters or pictures onto cloth. Many fabrics are printed with flowers and birds which are said to represent how a mother wished her child to be free and happy.
“Threads of Feeling” is on at the Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square, London WC1 until March 6. Admission is 7.50 pounds ($12).
Editing by Paul Casciato