This article first appeared in the February 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
I first realised the importance of the London Foundling Hospital’s collection of 18th‑century textiles as I researched ordinary people’s clothing for my book The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in 18th-Century England (2007). Very few pieces of 18th-century clothing have survived that can be identified with any confidence as having belonged to the poor. Ordinary people’s clothes were worn and reworn by a succession of owners until they fell into rags, or they were cut up and reused for quilts and baby clothes. If, by chance, they outlived the 18th century, they were unlikely to excite the attention of collectors, who were more attracted to high fashion.
In the absence of surviving clothing, I searched instead for surviving textiles, and it was this search that led me to the archives of London’s Foundling Hospital. As I sifted through some 5,000 rare, beautiful, mundane and moving scraps of fabric, I knew I had at last found my archive – Britain’s largest accumulation of everyday 18th-century textiles. They had so much to tell us, not just about fabric and clothing, but also about the lives of poor women and their babies. Vivid and poignant, each scrap of material represented the life of a single infant child and its absent parent.
So how did such an incredible collection of textiles come to be at the hospital’s archive? The story starts in 1739 with the establishment of the Foundling Hospital “for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children”. The hospital admitted its first baby in 1741 and had taken on a further 16,281 by 1760 – the vast majority of whom had not yet celebrated their first birthdays.
In order to avoid the shame that might otherwise encourage mothers to dump their babies in the streets or even kill them, the hospital authorities asked no questions of those who entrusted children to their care. Mothers remained anonymous and, in effect, gave over their children to a form of adoption, whereby the infant’s previous identity was effaced and the hospital became its parent. As a result, it is difficult to establish who the babies and their mothers were. Undoubtedly the vast majority were drawn from the labouring poor, but the often repeated claim that all babies were illegitimate is simply not true. Letters and notes left with them suggest that as many as a third had married parents, obliged by hardship or separation to give up their offspring in the hope that the hospital would offer better opportunities in life.
As well as guaranteeing their anonymity, the Foundling Hospital also gave mothers the right to reclaim their children at a later date. Such cases were rare – less than one per cent of all children entrusted to the hospital’s care between 1741 and 1760 were reclaimed. All the same, it presented the hospital with a conundrum: how were they to match the child with the mother when the mother’s identity was a mystery?
The answer was to record as much information on the baby as possible. On the printed registration forms or billets, the hospital recorded the sex of the child, the clothes it was wearing and any distinguishing marks on its body.
Officials also asked for a token to be kept with the billet as an identifier: a note, a letter or, crucially for my interest in 18th-century textiles, a small object. These objects included cheap trinkets, such as metal watch seals, coral necklaces, coins, rings, padlocks and keys, but the vast majority were textiles. Some were supplied by whoever left the child. Others were cut from the baby’s clothing by hospital officials.
The textiles are heavily skewed towards patterned, colourful fabrics – after all, they needed to be distinctive if the fabric was to be used to identify a child. Nevertheless, the collection is so large that it includes examples of most of the fabrics worn by poor women in the form of gowns, petticoats, cloaks, neckerchiefs, shifts and caps. It includes woollens, worsteds, linens, cottons and mixed fabrics, some in plain colours, some with woven patterns, some with printed patterns.
The majority of these fabrics were inexpensive, readily bought in London’s many drapers’ shops. The only important category of textiles that is entirely missing is the heavy, dark fabrics worn by men, such as kerseys, fustians, thicksets, and corduroys.
The Foundling textiles offer numerous expressions of maternal love, hope, yearning and remorse. The continuing attachment of mothers to the babies they were giving up is evident in their efforts to name them. Although it must have been common knowledge that the hospital gave the babies new names, mothers constantly asserted their own choice. They sewed initials, birth dates and birthplaces on fabric. Spelling out precious information in thread was a personal, tangible act that seems to have felt more permanent than mere ink on paper could ever do. Even the most crudely sewn initials seem to have conveyed a special kind of intimacy, sustaining the child’s bond with its mother in the face of the institution.
Mothers often expressed the hopes they invested in their babies through textile images, obtained by customising the natural imagery commonly printed on linen and cotton fabrics. An acorn or a bud might suggest germination and new growth, a bird or a butterfly the chance to fly free, a flower the capacity to blossom and fruit.
But the most powerful expressions of maternal emotion were those that used the heart – the established symbol of love in the 18th century. Foundling mothers left hearts drawn on paper, hearts cut out of cloth, and even a fabric printed with a hearts playing card pattern. One heart-shaped metal pendant left as a token declares: “You have my Heart, Tho’ we must Part.” But, such was the familiarity of the heart as an emblem of love, and the tragic circumstances in which the writer found herself, the words seem almost redundant.
John Styles is a historian at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the author of Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770 (Foundling Museum, 2010).