The history of the locket


This exclusive locket can be personalised with two engraved initials and is inspired by one of the tokens in the Foundling Museum’s Collection.

The tokens date from the 1740s to 1760s and were left by mothers with the babies they handed over to the care of the Foundling Hospital. Although it is impossible not to see them as fragile mementos of the mothers’ heartbreak and loss, their function was in fact practical.

When babies were admitted to the Foundling Hospital they were given new names. In the 19th century, as The Fallen Woman reveals, mothers were required to divulge highly personal information about themselves and their situation in written petitions, However, in the 18th century the Hospital operated a ‘no questions asked’ policy, so mothers’ names were not taken as part of the admissions process. The Hospital therefore needed a system to ensure that they could match a foundling to its mother, should she ever return to claim her child.

So a swatch of fabric was cut from the baby’s clothes. This was then cut in half and one half was given to the mother, while the other was pinned to the baby’s admission paper, or ‘billet’. Perhaps recognising that a small scrap of fabric ran the risk of being lost, or falling apart through handling, the Hospital also encouraged mothers to bring an additional item with them which would be uniquely personal. These tokens were treated with the upmost care and kept sealed within the baby’s folded billet, only to be opened should a claim be made. The tokens range from handwritten notes and poems, to small everyday objects such as jewellery, a piece of embroidery or a customised penny. Mothers often used the tokens as a means to express their sorrow at parting. A large number of tokens were cut in half enabling the mother to keep the matching part. However, every token is a testament to hope; the hope that one day the mother would be in a position to return and claim her child.

Our Art Happens locket has been inspired by a token that came with Robert Sammon in February 1746. Robert was the 291st baby to be admitted to the Foundling Hospital, but sadly he died within a month of arriving. This was not uncommon; in the 18th century 75% of children died before their fifth birthday, and infant mortality was one reason why so few foundlings were reunited with their parents.

In the 1760s the system of admission changed. Receipts were introduced and this removed the need for tokens. However, the custom had become so established that mothers continued to use them and by 1790 the Hospital’s admission records contained over 18,000 tokens. In the 19th century, for reasons that are not entirely clear, the billets were opened and the more unusual tokens put on display. Sadly, no one thought to make a note of which token belonged to which child, so most of these tokens are now themselves orphaned. However, thanks to the painstaking work of two researchers, Janette Bright and Gillian Clark, we have been able to re-establish links in a number of cases. These stories can be seen alongside the tokens in the Museum’s Introductory Gallery, where they continue to enthral visitors and inspire artists.

Thank you again to all of you who have donated to our campaign so far. We have passed the halfway mark which is incredibly exciting, but we still have a way to go before we reach our target. So please keep pledging and spreading the word about our Art Happens project!

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