Tuesday, 8 February 2011



















There were blue skies over Bloomsbury today.
(Doesn't that sound nice?)
As I headed for the Foundling Museum to see this poignant exhibition of fabric scraps that represent the forlorn hopes of impoverished 18th-century mothers that one day they might be reunited with the babies they were handing into institutional care.
You can see the exhibition online here. Or look at this video.
Every scrap of ribbon or clumsily embroidered memento tells the story of someone's breaking heart.
And yearning for the future.
To prevent any mistake when the Child is demanded a Yellow Ribbon is fix'd round him over his Right Shoulder and under his left Arm with Room to allow for his growing it is Humbly desir'd he may always wear it.
Not all of the children were illegitimate; as many as one-third were born to married parents who had fallen on hard times. A pretty pink and white ribbon was deposited with Foundling No. 7000 whose parents begged for her to be taken care of.
They will pay all Charges in a little Time with a handsome acknowledgment for the same and have her Home again when they Get over a little Trouble they are in: She is not a bastard Child.
And when Sarah Harbeson's mother had to part with her, at only six weeks old, she urged the hospital to remember that She has had the Breast and tis humbly hop'd it will be continued as she will not in all probability live without it.
Sometimes all a mother had to leave was a scrap of flannel; but there's more finery here than you'd imagine ... a swatch of silver ribbon, a tangle of expensive silk braid, a patchwork needlecase embroidered with a heart cut in two. (A happy ending to one story at least because this little boy was reunited with his mum when he was seven.)
I wondered if some of these ribbons held memories of courtship and romance and more carefree days. If they were gifts from sweet-talking lovers who had left a girl in the lurch?
Reading between the lines, you glimpse flashes of defiant courage ... Florella Burney's mother gave up her daughter on the day she was born, in 1758. But, as she named her, surely she must have thought that life held greater promise for a Florella than a plain Mary or Ann.
Pray let particulare care be take'en off this Child, As it will be call'd for again.
Alas, no foundling orphan could have a fancy name like Florella who was renamed Mary Dench.
Her mother never claimed her and she was apprenticed as a milliner when she was 11.
(I do hope she was all right. Think of all those cads in novels who made free with milliners and seamstresses.)
There weren't many happy endings. Of more than 16,000 babies admitted between 1741 and 1760, only 152 were reclaimed by their parents.
Such oceans of tears and heartache ...
And what would those mothers have thought had they known that their sad little tokens of love would be viewed by strangers in a museum 250 years later?

9 comments:

bookssnob said...

I went to the Foundling Museum a couple of years ago and absolutely loved it - very heartbreaking of course but fascinating too. This exhibition looks wonderful - so wish I could be there to see it in the flesh! I wonder what happened to all of those orphans...apprenticed out at such a young age.

rachel said...

A lovely, though sad post. Sometimes I wish I could get to London more easily; it is some consolation to read and experience vicariously those exhibitions I would love to see; thank you!

mary said...

Sorry you can't get to see it, Rachel (both Rachels!) but the online exhibition is very good if you follow the link.
Booksnob Rachel ... I was thinking of you as noticed a battered Ann Bridge in that secondhand bookshop around the corner. And now I can't remember the name ... something and GInger?

Darlene said...

I visited the Foundling Museum in 2009 and keep a postcard of the painting 'Foundling Girls at Prayer in the Chapel' on my vanity. I spent ages looking at the articles left with babies and wondering about the mothers. On a brighter note, I really enjoyed the Hogarths!

Off to explore the link...

mary said...

I'm ashamed to say, Darlene, that's the first time I was ever there. Not even to see the Hogarths and Captain Coram.

SmitoniusAndSonata said...

Thankyou . I'm going to be in London in a week or so for a couple of days and now you've solved the problem of which exhibition I should squeeze in . With the added attraction of the Persephone shop round the corner , who could resist !

mary said...

It's a tiny exhibition, only half an hour's worth - but very moving, Smitonius (or is it Sonata?) So you do need another project in the area. Two minutes from Persephone shop, as you say - although what I did was tea and a passionfruit cupcake at Bea's of Bloomsbury.

ramblingfancy said...

Thank you for reminding me of this - such moving stories. I must try to go!

elizabethm said...

That sounds a fantastic exhibition and I hadn't even heard of it. On my list now!