I have just read ‘Threads of Feeling, The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770’ which is a strange and fascinating story of one of Britain’s oldest charities, and one which from the outset attracted much celebrity support, in particular that of the painter William Hogarth. The hospital was established by a wealthy ship’s captain to care for ‘exposed and neglected children’, or rather , very young babies, who were sent by the charity to wet nurses in the countryside, and then trained as apprentices, so given a good chance in life, as long as they survived the horrifically high infant mortality of the time.
The first surprising discovery here was that mothers brought their children, rather than leaving them in baskets as I had imagined. Due to the limited number of places, they were forced to draw a ball out of a bag; if they drew white the babe was admitted, if black, this was seen as a virtual death sentence.
But the main point of the book was that the children’s admissions did not name them but mothers were encouraged to leave a small token, a small key, a note, but more often a swatch of fabric, in case they changed their minds and wanted them back at a later date. This story is doubly sad as most of the babies died, and few mothers came to claim those that survived.
Historian John Styles discovered the collection of fabric swatches as part of his research on 18th century textiles, as it is the best collection for the era of cloths used by the poor. He was amazed at the wide range of fabrics, mostly cut from the mother’s own clothing that is in the records, many of which are no longer made, such as camblett, and linsey. Many of these were of the sort poor women would wear, cheap cottons and linens, but even these were printed in a wide range of designs and colours. but he also found samples of fine silk cloth, fringes and ribbons. This was before blue and pink were used to show gender, so instead, the children had either a cockade for a boy or a bow for the girl tied to a bonnet or their wrists. Rarer still, were examples of needlework, some as part of the fabric piece, but a few samplers and hearts, showing the child was not given away on impulse, and the act was not without regret. The final piece is an embroidered needle case that had been cut in two; both halves are in the records, apparently as the mother reclaimed the child.
Styles’ book is well written and illustrated, but his description of the fine fabrics causes me some problems. I have read several contemporary accounts at the time that the hospital was supported by so many great and good because it was where the illegitimate offspring of the wealthy were sent. Throughout the 18th century, there were also many calls for the founding of Magdalene hospitals where pregnant fallen women could be cared for during and after childbirth, but the one at London’s St George’s Fields was not founded until about 1758, so later than the period in question, but its existence shows there was a need to help such women and their children.
To me, this fabric collection may well be as he claims, that poor women had access to expensive fabrics, but it may be that the women abandoning their babies had far more complicated stories, of abandoned lovers, of rigid social rules and children that were often loved but had no place in society.