Foundling hospital token

    H A R R I E T   W A R D

76 Harriet Ward    76 Foundling hospital token

After leaving school, I spent several months as a community service volunteer, and was sent to work in a children’s home. It was not a very good home (it closed down soon afterwards) and many of the staff and the children were unhappy, but it was as a result of that experience that I became interested in social work, particularly with children and families.

I qualified as a social worker in 1973, at Oxford University and then worked as a practitioner until 1977 when my first child was born. We were generic in those days, working right across adult and children’s social services, but my primary interest was always in children. I spent much of my extended maternity leave reading about the history of social work with children and I never returned to practice because when the time came I was hooked on research. Since 1989 I have been a more or less fulltime researcher undertaking empirical studies designed to inform policy and practice on issues such as how outcomes of care can be improved, and exploring more theoretical questions such as the circumstances under which it might be legitimate for the state to intervene in family life. I founded the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University in 2002 and directed it until I took semi-retirement in 2014. I am currently a part-time research professor.


Foundling hospital token is a scrap of material left by a mother who placed her baby in the Foundling Hospital in 1767. The Foundling Hospital (now Coram) is the oldest British children’s charity, founded by Thomas Coram in 1739 for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children, although increasingly admissions policy focussed on illegitimate children whose mothers had been abandoned by their fathers.

The policy of the Hospital was to relieve the mother of all responsibility for maintaining her child on the understanding that all future contacts would cease. Both mothers and children were thought to benefit – the mother by being given the opportunity to eradicate what was seen as a shameful past, and the children by being given ‘a good Christian upbringing’ that might to some extent mitigate the shame of illegitimacy and prevent them from repeating their parents’ mistakes. Right up until the mid-twentieth century babies who were placed in the Foundling Hospital were re-baptised after admission, mothers were not informed of their new name, and all links with them were deliberately broken. Until the late nineteenth century, very few birth parents could write; they left a token such as this with the baby so that, if they were ever in a position to reclaim them, they had some way of proving that the child was theirs.

Towards the bottom of the token is an embroidered heart, cut in half. This was a common emblem, appearing on several tokens in the Foundling Hospital archive, symbolising the pain of separation, and the hope that one day the two halves of the broken heart might be reunited. However, only a minute number of Foundling Hospital children, estimated at less than 1%, ever saw their parents again.


I chose Foundling Hospital token because …

… At a personal level it represents for me not only the very early days of a care system that is still, in some ways, recognisable today, but also the beginnings of my research career – my first research study explored the history of social work, though it focussed on the history of children who came into the care of the Waifs and Strays Society (now the Children’s Society) in the nineteenth century rather than the Foundling Hospital a hundred years earlier. It also represents my conviction that we cannot truly make sense of the present without an understanding of the past.

My other reasons for choosing this Object are more fundamental. The Foundling Hospital tokens, and particularly the fractured hearts, represent an enduring theme in social work – that of separation and loss. The tokens were also chosen by parents; they provided a unique opportunity to allow parents to express, if only symbolically, their point of view. Some parents revealed nothing – they simply tore a strip off the clothes they were wearing, but others painstakingly embroidered initials and hearts on their tokens, or left the child with a piece of jewellery or a coin, presumably hoping that this might serve as a memento even if they were never reunited. In my view the tokens can be seen as emblems of the pain that is always incurred when parents and children cannot live together, even when the separation is obviously necessary and clearly in the interests of the child – and many of the Foundling Hospital infants would have been abandoned or died of starvation had they not been admitted.

A contemporary study which I and some colleagues have just completed, in which we have been following abused and neglected children from infancy until their eighth birthdays, graphically illustrates this point. The interviews with birth parents who have not been able to meet their children’s needs articulate an overwhelming sense of loss and failure when children are placed in care, even when they agree that the decision is in the child’s best interests. Perhaps the Foundling Hospital tokens serve as a reminder that such decisions will always have painful consequences for some of the parties involved, even when children are better safeguarded from harm and achieve better outcomes when placed away from home.

Another key reason for selecting my Object is because the tokens represent a link with a different past. There is important research being undertaken in Canada that reveals that a key element of the process of identity formation is ‘acquiring a working sense of one’s own personal persistence in time’ and that young people are at their most vulnerable when this thread that links past to present is weak. None of the Foundling Hospital children saw their tokens again after they had been admitted – they were filed away along with the parent’s petition for admission, their potential significance for the children unacknowledged and lost. However one of the issues that arose again and again when, a few years ago, we were conducting research interviews with young people who had spent lengthy periods in care was the value they placed on photographs, jewellery and other personal possessions – Objects – that served as a link with home. Such possessions formed an obvious link with their birth families, but they also symbolised a continuity between the past and the present. However, many of the children and young people we interviewed were resentful because residential staff and foster carers had failed to appreciate their significance and a number of these cherished objects had been lost as they moved from one placement to another.

My final reason for selecting this Object is that I think these tokens show that, in spite of all the problems that beset the care system today, and all the difficulties facing social work with children and families, there have been advances. We no longer think that illegitimacy is shameful, or that parents (and their children) should be punished because they are not married. We no longer think that children who become the subjects of care orders should be permanently separated and/or denied contact with their birth parents. We no longer think that adoption should entail secrecy or a permanent rupture of the bond between parent and child – in fact the most recent research indicates that communication openness is an important factor in the successful adaptation of adopted children. These are positive changes that indicate improvements in our understanding of the needs of very vulnerable children and their families, and they should be celebrated.


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