It’s begun. The day’s rhythm unfolds in small loops of movement.
The Foundling Museum started life as the Foundling Hospital over 200 years ago. The name hospital comes from hospes (guest) and means a charitable institution rather than one that provides medical care. A lot happened during the years it functioned and in the London Metropolitan Archives there is a formidable collection of materials relating to it. (Somewhere, I’m sure I’ve read that the archive covers 1/2 km of shelving, which makes today’s task of initial exploration feel like using a teaspoon to measure an ocean).
Having arrived at the Archives, I sign in, take a clear plastic bag from the box beside the security guard, walk up a flight of stairs, transfer notebook, pencil (no pens), phone, camera, wallet, into the clear plastic bag and leave the rest of my things in locker 36. I put the key to locker 36 in my pocket. I walk up another flight of stairs and enter the quiet interior of the research area. It’s a friendly, rather than a severe, quiet: there’s the sound of occasional tapping on keyboards and the intermittent whirr of the microfiche as a lady in 1950’s style glasses searches its contents. Maybe it’s just a deleterious effect I have on computers, but the several I try, crash or freeze intermittently.
I’m in a hurry because there’s a deadline every 20 minutes to submit research requests to be collected in the following 20 minutes. If I don’t make the 2.20pm deadline I’ll have to wait til 3pm! I stop rushing and try and understand the categorising system. I find a key to the system and note down all the areas I think I might be interested in. There are a lot. I get so absorbed by this that I nearly miss the 2.40 deadline. But just in time I realise and manage to submit my requests with a small, satisfied flourish. I now have 20 minutes to wait until I can enter into the special collections reading room and look through my requests.
While I wait, this is the list of what I know so far:
- 17th Oct 1739 – The Foundling Hospital was established by a businessman – Captain Thomas Coram – with a royal charter.
- 1740 – The Foundling Hospital Art Collection began when William Hogarth donated a portrait of the captain.
- 25th March 1741 – The first foundling was received at Hatton Garden – a temporary building.
- 1741 ongoing – Thomas Gainsborough, Thomas Hudson, Allan Ramsay, Joshua Reynolds, Louis-François Roubiliac and John Michael Rysbrack all contributed paintings to the Hospital’s collection.
- 1754 – The hospital moves to a permanent building in Lambs Conduit Fields.
It’s 3pm. I go through the glass doors to the reading room to see what has been delivered.
When I was at the museum, it was the samples of handwriting, (‘banishment’ written out to cover two pages), and the lists of names – Michael Angel, Prudence Friendly and Julius Caesar, (all foundlings were baptised and given new names when they arrived at the Hospital), that caught my attention.
But now in the reading room, opening a large, pale cardboard box to find a small stack of letters, some of which are singed around the edges, and all tied together with a municipal ribbon, I’m affected in a completely different way. As I carefully separate them, I feel their weight, their brittle dryness, the unfamiliarity of their texture. All the pages are covered in a dense landscape of words, words added in, or overwritten or perpendicular to the first layer of writing. It takes a long moment to begin to decipher the language and slowly I begin to understand that these are petition letters handed in to the Foundling Hospital by mothers forced through poverty or other reasons, to give up their young child. Each petition contains a report from a relative or employer vouching for the (virtuous or otherwise) character of the mother.
The letters are full of stories – of men who promised to marry, then didn’t; or of men who simply disappeared, or ‘went abroad’. Some tell a different story – of men who have died, or disavowed a relationship. The stories – each one individual and individually painful, also repeat – like variations of a pattern.
This bundle of letters is from 1850, the same year that Robert Stevenson opened his Britannia Bridge between the Island of Anglesey and the Welsh mainland; the same year a telegraph cable was laid underneath the English Channel, between Dover and Cap Gris Nez; the same year the Koh-i-Noor diamond was presented to Queen Victoria and still the same year that Elizabeth Barrett Browning published Sonnets From The Portugese.
The letters are full of deep sorrow, despair, careful appraisal and some kindness. I feel the need to spend time with each one, to make sense of the story it contains.
Suddenly it’s dark outside. Time’s made a jump, without me noticing.FOUNDLING LIST 1: FATHERS’ OCCUPATIONS (1849) DOMESTIC SERVANTS – 7 COACH-MAKER – 1 CIGARBASE MAKER – 1 BAKERS – 2 SAILORS – 2 BLACKSMITH – 1 GARDENERS – 2 PAINTERS – 2 PRINTER – 1 BUTCHER – 1 PORTERS – 2 DRAPER – 1 COURIER -1 MEDICAL STUDENT – 1 LIEUTENANT IN THE NAVY – 1 GENTLEMAN – 1
NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICER IN THE ARMY – 1