Throwback Thursday: Foundling heart

The gifts of the rich and royal are easy to research and write about.

For every king, queen or statesman there are at least fifty books which document their lives in minute detail. From Tutankhamen's footwear to the near 1kg book on the 'scenes and times' from Queen Victoria's reign, some scholar or bureaucrat has recorded it. 

But this embroidered heart, just an inch tall and wide, affords a glimpse into the lives of the those at the far end of the fortune spectrum.

Red heart token © The Foundling Museum

Red heart token © The Foundling Museum

This heart, a token, was left with a baby by its mother at the city’s Foundling Hospital sometime between 1741 and 1760.

When a desperate parent applied to have their child admitted to the Foundling Hospital, the capital’s first orphanage, the child had to undergo a medical exam. 

If the child was healthy and admission was approved, it was renamed, given an admission number and baptised. 

But parents were also asked to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the children may be known thereafter if necessary.’

The token was filed away as a link to the infant’s past should they ever be reclaimed. A parent who couldn't read or write but who found themselves in a better position and able to look after their child could say: 'My baby was the one left with the blue and yellow ribbon'. 

Some left poems or coins with their babies, others left buttons or scraps of cloth.

This mother left a heart.

A very small number of the thousands of children admitted to the orphanage were reclaimed by their parents but stories do exist with happy endings.

Like the boy connected with this coin.

Innocency in Safety

The boy, Oliver (renamed Luke) was taken in by the Foundling Hospital in 1758. His parents left a yellow ribbon and this Charles II coin with the words ‘Innocency in Safety’ and the initials of the child’s parents, RL and ED. Oliver’s parents returned for him a few years later.

But the red heart is still in the care of the Foundling Hospital (now a museum) exactly where it was dropped off almost 300 years ago in Brunswick Square.

By 1790, 18,000 tokens, including the red heart, were left unclaimed.

I visited the Foundling Museum last Friday. 

There are hundreds of tokens on display and a fantastic exhibition 'The Fallen Woman' which includes petitions from women who applied to have their babies taken into the care of the Foundling Hospital.

 I took photos of three hearts.

As I looked at each token and at exhibition pictures of children who had passed through the Foundling Hospital through the years, I realised the token wasn't really a gift at all. The tokens exist as a symbol of the highest gift from parent to child: the chance to have a better life. 

The Foundling Museum

40 Brunswick Square

London WC1N 1AZ

T: +44 (0)20 7841 3600