Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poignant Scraps from the Past: "Threads of Feeling"

Sunday, October 10, 2010
Susan reports:

Most surviving clothing from the past belonged to upper class women, princesses and peeresses and the daughters of wealthy merchants. But one of the most important collections of 18th c. English textiles came from a far more humble group: the unwanted children given up to London's Foundling Hospital.

Created by Royal Charter in 1739, the Hospital was one of the earliest attempts to combine private philanthropy with organized charity. Led by prosperous shipbuilder Thomas Coram (1668-1741), the organizers of the Hospital had two goals: not only to offer a more humane alternative to parish workhouses (in whose dubious "care" over 75% of abandoned children died), but also to provide a suitable workforce for the growing Empire's industry, agriculture, domestic service, and the military. The project became a fashionable charity among the nobility, and was endorsed by Queen Charlotte herself. The Hospital's handsome new buildings included paintings by William Hogarth and a chapel financed in part by concerts given by George Frederic Handel. During the early years, admitted children were given excellent care by 18th c. standards, including inoculation against smallpox, and were taught marketable skills as well as how to read and write.

In the beginning, the only requirement for admission was that a child be under two years of age and in good health. Children were to be left anonymously and without questions, and at once the new Hospital became the best hope of desperate mothers. Over 4,000 infants were left between 1741-1760, and the billets cataloguing their admission (and often, sadly, their too-early deaths) have been preserved. Pinned to each child's page is an identifying token that had come with the child. In some cases, this is a tiny linen cap, sleeve, or ribbon rosette, but most often the nurses simply cut a swatch from the clothing the child was wearing when admitted. The tokens were kept in case a mother's circumstances improved and she came to reclaim her child. Almost none did.

Today the Foundling Hospital is a museum, and a selection of these admission billet pages is currently on display in an exhibition called Threads of Feeling (the show runs until March 6, 2011); the exhibition also has a Facebook page. Eighteenth century children's clothing was most often cut from adult clothing, and the swatches show a wide range of textiles, from the simplest threadbare linen to costly printed silks. While the billets are of great interest to historians and sociologists, as a novelist (and a mother), those little scraps are heartbreaking. They represent the last contact a mother had with her child, her last chance to make her baby "look pretty" for the strangers who could provide a better future than she could herself.

If, like most of us, you can't make it to London for the exhibition, a selection of the billet pages appear in the excellent book The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth Century England by John Styles.

Above: Yellow Satten Flowered. Silk woven in a flowered pattern. 
Foundling number 13187. A girl aged about 14 days, admitted 20 June 1759. Died 2 July 1759. Photograph from the Foundling Hospital Museum. 

Update: The excellent catalogue for this exhibition is now available for order in America, from our friends at Burnley & Trowbridge (a most tempting website for those who enjoy all things 17th-18th century.)


Philippa Lodge said...

there's an interesting book I have around here somewhere which is a compilation of some of the written histories (how my man left me/died/was already married/raped me, mostly) of the women who brought their children there.

And I just spent 10 minutes digging through my bookshelves and a few more searching amazon...

Oh wait. some glimmer has come to me.... Ah yes. Love in the Time of Victoria. About morality in the working classes.

Interestingly, it's by a French author, Barret-Ducrocq

Margravine Louisa said...

I have the book you speak of,and while it is essentially a textbook of textiles and the garments worn by the "everyday" people, the chapters regarding the foundlings and the "hospitals" were the chapters that stayed with me the most. It is incredible that such a society existed, where essentially children were abandoned because mother had no means to care for them, and were left in desperate means by uncaring and selfish men!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Phyllis, thanks for the title. The lengthy history on the Foundling Hospital Museum website (it's a download link) makes for depressing reading. One of the most appalling objections to the Hospital was that it encouraged promiscuity among the lower classes by offering a sanctuary for their illegitimate children!

Margravine Louisa, the section on the foundlings was the part of "Dress of the People" that stuck with me, too (and it's a sizable book.) Again, referring to the Hospital's official history, I was reminded of that charming before-the-Enlightenment belief that children were no better than the sins of the parents. Still, you've only to read "Oliver Twist" to see that there was still no lasting progress made in the treatment of unwanted children between 1730 and 1830.,.,very sad.

Tabitha said...

I've read about these foundlings, too. What I remembered was how many of the mothers weren't "bad" women, but the widows of soldiers and sailors in the navy. Because the government was so corrupt and slow with pensions and back pay to dependents, the widows could not afford to feed their children, and were forced to give them up so they wouldn't starve. Shameful all around.

nightsmusic said...

Eighteenth century children's clothing was most often cut from adult clothing, and the swatches show a wide range of textiles, from the simplest threadbare linen to costly printed silks.

The 'costly printed silks' mention makes me curious. There's a story in there somewhere, how a child came to be abandoned at the hospital in such costly clothing...

So sad.

Unknown said...

The site of the original Foundling Hospital belongs to children still, as a central London child in nursery and primary school we were conducted en crocodile once a week for games to Coram's Fields and still today no adult can enter without a child. ( )

Many of Handel’s Messiah performances were benefits for the Hospital, he became a Governor, and among the archival treasures of the Coram Foundation are his own manuscript score and set of instrumental parts for Messiah bequeathed in 1759. (As a direct consequence they also hold now Gerald Coke’s magnificent Handel Collection; Handel’s working draft rests in the British Library, it was purchased with Handel’s other manuscripts by George III) They also have a fine collection of eighteenth century British paintings, Hogarth encouraged others to give work and, prior to the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768, the Hospital served as almost the only exhibition space where contemporary painters beginning a career could show their work to a public.

ILoveVersailles said...

Thank goodness the museum has posted one today on their Face Book page that has a happy ending! A boy named Mentor Lesage (curious name) who spent eleven years with them before he was apprenticed to a farmer in the country. I'm sure we're all reacting to the notion of foundlings with modern "Save the Children" sensibilities, but really, this was a much better option for the mothers than watching a child starve in the London slums.

Margaret Porter said...

When in London we stay in Mayfair half the time and the other half on only a few steps from Coram's Fields (and an easy stroll from the British Library where I do research.) I've never been inside the fenced area because I never have a child with me! I'm definitely planning to visit the exhibition when I'm next there, between now and the end of the year. The museum is quite interesting, in its own right and because of its connection to Handel and other notables of the era.

Chris Woodyard said...

When I saw these pages in The Dress of the People, I was stunned by the sheer fact that such a unique collection had survived. I wonder if some of the richer fabrics were the result of the thriving second-hand clothes market or of garments being handed down to servants (perquisites on a less royal scale) or, of course, of theft.
Thanks for sharing the information on the exhibit!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

I love hearing how the modern hospital is now a thoroughly happy place for children. :)
It's interesting to read of how closely art has always been tied to the hospital's history, and Handel's music as well. In this country, I have a feeling such an institution would have long ago become just one more abandoned stop on "Ghost Adventures."

I agree that the more expensive fabrics must have been either the final stop in the extensive 18th c. used-clothing market, or handed down through servants. But who knows for sure? (And so my imagination leaps into action...!)

According to the FB page, there will soon be a book about the exhibition: "Threads of Feeling:
The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740-1770." As soon as I learn more publication details, I'll be sure to pass them along here.

Caroline Clemmons said...

This is so sad, yet heartwarming to know the children were not left on the streets to die. Thanks for sharing this interesting info.

Anonymous said...

The fabric samples were not left as a way of making the child look "pretty". They were a way of identifying the child should the mother ever come into better circumstances and be able to claim her child again. When handed over to the Hospital children were effectively adopted and given a new name so a sample of fabric matching the mother's was often the only way to identify them.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Anonymous, my understanding is that because not all children were accepted, it was in the mother's best interest to make her child appear as healthy and attractive as possible. This is clear from the descriptions of how the children were dressed on the billet sheets. The tokens and scraps of fabric were cut from their clothes when the child was admitted, to be used later for identification if the mother returned. Whether fancy or not, the clothes worn at admission were then discarded, and standardized clothing issued in their place.

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