Lying a little to the south of London’s three great railway stations for the north (Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross) is the Foundling Museum.
Once home to the capital’s abandoned children, it contains dozens of wooden trays each containing hundreds and hundreds of little tokens. Many more are stored away. And each one represents a child or baby once left there.
The Foundling Museum, in Brunswick Square, is all that now remains of the ‘Foundling Hospital’. If that name rings a bell, it may be because you’ve seen the name at the foot of the hymn ‘Praise the Lord! Ye heavens adore him’.
In fact, the Foundling Hospital was not so much a hospital as an early Georgian children’s home. Over a period of 200 years, up to the Second World War, the Foundling Hospital took in over 27,000 children.
Its founder was Thomas Coram (c.1668–1751). He was born in Lyme Regis. He took to the sea as a boy and 40 years later returned a wealthy man. Having made his fortune through shipping timber around the New England coast and across the Atlantic, he brought Eunice, his Bostonian wife, back to England where he eventually intended to settle into retirement.
Life in the city of London had deteriorated during his years of absence. Immorality, debauchery and grinding poverty were everywhere apparent. Here, life was as cheap as the gin Londoners consumed in vast quantities. William Hogarth’s (1697–1764) famous caricature of gin-drinking London may have been an exaggeration, but the image he portrayed was instantly recognisable.
In folklore, people in the countryside were supposed to imagine that London’s streets were paved with gold, but the reality was very different. Walking through the city meant picking one’s way along narrow streets cluttered with the dead bodies of dogs and babies, as well as the detritus of a cramped, disease-ridden life, compounded by the ground-in muck associated with horse-drawn transport.
Any woman with an illegitimate baby in the eighteenth century faced an impossible dilemma. She could go to the workhouse with the baby, where the death rate amongst infants approached 100 per cent, or leave the baby to die naturally and dispose of the body in the only way available to urban dwellers, in the street.
The sight of little lifeless corpses in foul gutters was a truly shocking sight for the 52-year-old Captain Coram. Moved by what he saw, he began a campaign to establish the first Foundling Hospital.
It would take him 20 years in all, and his efforts to obtain a Royal Charter meant him enlisting the support of King George II (1683–1760), the painter Hogarth and the musician George Frederick Handel (1685–1759), who frequently had his Messiah performed there.
And so it was that, at a time when the preachers John Wesley and George Whitefield were taking to the open air in proclaiming the gospel, the doors of the Foundling Hospital, for ‘the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’, were opened. Thomas Coram was, by now, an old man.
Each woman who left a baby or infant at the Foundling was required to leave a token. It was something unique which would serve as an individual marker for her child. One day she would come and take her child back again. Identifying the token she had left would prove she was the mother.
Some women knew what was expected and painstakingly crafted a beautiful emblem for their child, perhaps depicting something that would be reminiscent of home. This was an indication that not all the women who left their children were penniless.
Others did not realise what was required and hastily pulled a button from a coat or ripped a piece of thread from a dress, hoping it would in time become a treasured keepsake. Some women cut a coin in half — one half to be kept by her and the other by her child. She would entertain the fond hope that one day the coin would be reunited again, just as mother and child would be.
And so the tokens were kept in the hospital to await the day when mother would return for her child. As it happens, there is a double sadness to this story.
For one thing, children never got to see the token their mother had left. The tokens were put in trays and forgotten. The intention was to give the children a new start in life and anything to do with the past was best forgotten. In keeping with that policy, children were given new names, the first boy being called Thomas Coram and the first girl Eunice Coram.
Children were educated and brought up to know their future place in society; boys often went into the army and girls into domestic service. Clearly, this was preferable to the horrors most of them could have expected in life, but whatever the future held, they faced it alone. Their ties with their mother and original home were severed for ever in all but a few cases.
The second tragedy is that the countless tokens each say that here was a child who was never claimed. It speaks of a mother’s dream of better days ahead, when she would be able to look after her child: a dream that was never realised. Perhaps some mothers extinguished their own dreams by concluding their child was better off at the Foundling and should be left alone.
All of this gives an interesting spiritual parallel. Let’s begin with the mother-child relationship, which illustrates to some degree the relationship man was designed to enjoy in knowing God.
That relationship was broken at the outset. The first man Adam’s sin brought us into ruin and under a sentence of condemnation. This we have confirmed and compounded by our own sin. We have abandoned the true God, hoping to consign him to a place far from our existence — a bit like the Foundling Hospital. We tell ourselves that it’s for the best.
In the place of the first relationship we have created a little ‘token’ — it’s called man-made, substitute religion. It may be ornate in its ritual and painstakingly put together. Or it may be completely off the cuff, the best we can come up with in the circumstances.
And we keep the token at home. We may bring it out from time to time, sigh as we give it a little polish or look at it fondly and then put it back in its drawer. Easter and Christmas are favoured times for getting out the tokens.
The point about the Foundling Hospital tokens is that they were meant to be exchanged for the real thing. Tragically most never were.
But whatever sadness we may feel about the hundreds of unclaimed tokens, and what might have been for the mothers who left their infants at the Foundling Hospital, it pales into complete insignificance when we look at the world around us. People have their cherished ‘token’ of a relationship that might have been, but never think to exchange it for the genuine article.
We were designed to know God, to love him and walk in harmony with him. Jesus said that he is the light of the world. Let us learn to seek and walk in that light, and enter into fulness of life with the living God.
Paul Mackrell grew up in Hampshire but now lives in west Sussex with his wife, Sue, who comes from Liverpool. They have three daughters, two sons and ten grandchildren.