At the Foundling Museum

Brian Dillon

The Foundling Hospital was established in Bloomsbury in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, ‘for the education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children’. Strictly speaking, they weren’t foundlings: the parents, or more usually the mother, had to hand over their offspring and were instructed to ‘affix on each child some particular writing, or other distinguishing mark or token, so that the child may be known thereafter if necessary’. By 1790, 18,000 of these objects had been collected; women had continued to leave them for decades after they were replaced by paper receipts in 1760. The Victorians exhibited some of the old tokens, and accidentally separated them from the names of the corresponding children. When the hospital moved to Surrey in 1926 the original building was demolished, although some of its interiors survive in the present Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square, along with many of the tokens. They include coins, buttons, a hazelnut, a tiny rouge pot, many heart-shaped mementos and at least one plain metal disc inscribed ‘this is a token.’

The full text of this exhibition review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in