threads of feeling


In the mid-18th century thousands of poor women deposited their newborn babies at the Foundling Hospital. The scraps of material left to identify them tell an extraordinary story.

By Kathryn Hughes

EXCERPT: Whether the mothers’ fierce hope that their babies would be better off at the hospital was justified is hard to say. Two-thirds of the foundlings died, which sounds shocking until you remember that nearly half the children born in London at the time would perish in infancy. Certainly it looks as though the hospital administrators realised the damage a toxic city environment could have on small and vulnerable constitutions. Within a few days of being received the children were shipped out to the country, where they were suckled by wet nurses. If they managed to survive for six years, they returned to Bloomsbury for some solid if rudimentary schooling. From there the boys were apprenticed in a variety of trades and the girls prepared for a life in service. The hospital took its duties as quasi-parent seriously. Any whiff of exploitation and the children were recalled. One female employer who savagely mistreated her foundling apprentice was prosecuted and hanged.

The mothers may have been over-optimistic, too, in their belief that one day they would be in a position to reclaim their baby. Out of the 16,282 infants admitted between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were ever called for. Some women, though, clearly had the drive and determination to execute their plan come what may. One of the most extraordinary pieces of fabric in the exhibition belongs to Sarah Bender. Attached to her baby was 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 passed, during which time the child, renamed Benjamin Twirl, was presumably farmed out to the country, and made stout and ruddy enough to eventually be brought back to the city.

Then, one day nearly a decade after she had first trudged out to Bloomsbury, Sarah Bender banged on the door of the Foundling Hospital and presented her piece of patchwork. Something in her circumstances must have changed. Charles/Benjamin would be coming home. This was one heart that had been mended.

Threads of Feeling is at the Foundling Museum, London WC1, from 14 October to 6 March 2011.


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