It's important to remember in the midst of all this discussion that children have been abandoned throughout history.
It’s important to remember in the midst of all this discussion that children have been abandoned throughout history.

While I welcome the discussion of adoption and adoption ethics taking place today, it is a sad fact that for as long as humans have been around, there have been parents who were not able or not willing to care for their children.  Usually, someone in the extended family or the community steps forth to parent that child.  But when this doesn’t happen, then what?  Adoption as we know it today was not always common, and the fate of children whose parents were not able to care for them was grim: abandonment and early death from infanticide, abuse, or neglect.

I recently heard about a fascinating online museum exhibit (just the fact that there are now online museum exhibits was a pretty darn fascinating discovery) on The Double X Podcast by The Foundling Museum in London, which tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, London’s first home for abandoned children founded in the mid-1700s.

From 1741 to 1760 (the time period of this exhibit), 16,282 babies entered The Foundling Hospital.  A sign at admissions instructed the mothers to leave some kind of identifying token in the event they were one day in a position to reclaim their child.  Admission was anonymous to both mother and child, so this token needed to be memorable and distinctive, and was most often a piece of cloth from either the mother’s or the child’s clothing, accompanied sometimes with a note.

The vast majority of mothers failed to heed the instruction to leave an identifying token, perhaps because they were too beaten down by rotten luck and grim lives to imagine a time when they would be able to provide a warm, clean home for their baby.  All the same, 5,000 of the babies came with some something attached.  The hospital promised that “great care will be taken for the preservation” of the item, and by golly, great care was indeed taken.  These pieces of fabric were recently re-discovered in the archives of the hospital and form the largest collection of 18th century textiles surviving in Britain, and probably the world.

Women relinquished their parental rights for much the same reason in the mid 18th century as they do today—poverty, family dysfunction, and inability to provide a stable home.  About two-thirds of the babies that were admitted to the Foundling Hospital were born to single women.  We can assume that mothers in the 18th century grieved over this decision, just as mothers throughout the world grieve today.  At least for some, leaving a piece of cloth reflected a hope that their decision might be reversed in the future.

The exhibit and most of the reviews primarily focused on the historic significance of the cloth remnants as insight into the lives of the poor and working class in Britain.  I, on the other hand, was fascinated by what these scraps of cloth and notes said about the lives of these women.

What can you leave to identify your child?

Little pieces of a hand woven diaper or cap were carefully pinned to admission papers.  Scraps from worn dresses and lots of ribbons were left.  We can speculate on the meaning of some of the remnants.  Did fabric imprinted with the image of buds or flowers reflect an unspoken hope for this child?  Did birds and butterflies speak to the dream of a bright and happy future?  The meaning of the ever abundance hearts is clear.  They came in every form imaginable– drawn on paper, metal hearts, embroidered hearts, hearts cut out of fabric.

What I found particularly heart breaking were the notes. (My only complaint about the online version of this exhibit is that the pictures focused more on the cloth and often cut off the notes.)

  • Foundling 8338: “May all thy life be happiness and love.”
  • Founding 7000: Ann Gardner, born Oct. 6, 1757. “Begs to have care taken of her and they will pay all charges in a little time with a handsome acknowledgement for the same and have her home again when they get over the little trouble they are in. She is not a bastard child.
  • Foundling 8959: Florella Burney, born June 19, 1758  “In The Parish off St Anns SoHo. not Baptize’d, pray Let partiuclare Care be Taken’en off this Child, As it will be call’d for Again.”

I ached to know what happened.  Were Ann and Florella ever reunited with their families?  Did Foundling 8338 have a happy life?  We don’t know the specifics of these orphans, but we know that two thirds of the children died.  Although this sounds like a condemnation of the care at the Foundling Hospital, during this same time period half of all children born in London died in infancy.  At least from the records, it appears that the Foundling Hospital did the best they could.

Within a few days of being received the children were shipped out to the country, where they were fostered by wet nurses. If they managed to survive for six years, they returned to the Foundling Hospital for some solid if rudimentary education.  At fifteen, the boys were apprenticed in a variety of trades and the girls prepared for a life as household servants.

Happy endings were few and far between.

Out of the 16,282 infants admitted between 1741 and 1760, only 152 mothers ever reclaimed their child. One of these 152 was Sarah Bender. When she left her son, she also left a piece of elaborate patchwork, made up of bits of printed fabric, on which she had embroidered a heart in red thread. She retained the matching piece. Eight years later, she showed up at the door to the Foundling Hospital and presented her piece of patchwork, and left with her son.

As I looked at the pictures of the cloth and notes left, I wondered. What would I have left?  What would I have written that could possibly convey my reasons, and my hopes and my prayers for my child.  Thank God I’ve never been in that position because I couldn’t think of a thing that would begin to encompass what I would want to convey.

Image credit: Eduardo Llanquileo