The objects are known collectively by the museum as “The Tokens.” Trifles, mostly, these small random pieces were left by parents, usually mothers, forced by poverty or the social stigma of their child’s illegitimacy, to relinquish their children to what was then called the Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Young Children. Used as identifiers in the case of the parents’ return, they now form a heartbreaking collection often overlooked by visitors to the U.K. capital.
Education and Maintenance. Exposed and deserted. Those terms speak volumes. Founded in 1739 by philanthropist Thomas Coram, a retired sea-captain, the hospital began taking in infants on a “first come, first served” basis in 1741. Today, the Foundling Museum “works to transform the lives of disadvantaged children through the arts and to inspire people to make the world a better place.”
For a novelist’s take on this history, read Jamila Gavin‘s Whitbread Award-winning children’s novel, Coram Boy. Published all of twenty years ago in 2000, it remains a moving read, with a complex villain and interwoven lives in two periods of time eight years apart.
As usual, there was a throng of desperate women pressing at the gates at the hospital; Begging not to be forced to drop their babies in the street to die, Begging for a chance in the lottery. They had to dip their hands in a basket and draw out a ball: a white ball denoted entry, A blackball meant denial and a red one meant they could wait in the hope that one of the chosen babies would fail the medical test they all underwent.
Reading Jamila’s novel today, I can’t help thinking about the children separated from their parents in this century, for social and political reasons every bit as horrifying as those that prevailed in 18th century England. Today, for the most part, it’s not families who are “exposing” and “deserting” their children.