Foundling Swatches

Fragments. Remembrances. Scraps of cloth or small tokens attached to the handwritten records of foundling children were kept as a means of identification. It was hoped that these remembrances would be a means of one day uniting mother and child under more hopeful circumstances.

Foundling 170

Occasionally, there were happy endings where the child was reclaimed, apprenticed, or adopted. However, more often than not, the foundling children immortalized in these unusual ledgers died young and were buried in unmarked graves. What almost all of them have in common is that this is all that is left of their existence, which is perhaps more of a mark than most people leave, even those who have happier beginnings or more successful lives. There are just bits of cloth, a ribbon or a button attached to the faded pages in a record book, something so practical and seemingly ordinary which have across time and upon rediscovery become completely fascinating. So beautiful and sad. Haunting.

William Porter

Foundling 14695. An embroidered sampler left with a boy named William Porter, admitted on the 6th of December in 1759 and died on the 27th of May in 1760.

Captain Thomas Coram opened the Foundling Hospital in 1741 with a charter awarded to him by King George II. Artists William Hogworth, Joshua Reynolds, and Thomas Gainsborough along with composer George Frideric Handel were patrons of the endeavor, donating the proceeds from their works. The idea was revolutionary and progressive in its time. Desperate and destitute young mothers, who did not have the means to care for their children whether they were unmarried or widowed, were given the opportunity to house their children in a safe place with no questions asked and gifted with open invitation to reclaim their children when and if possible.

Many of these mothers were probably children themselves, in the worst of circumstances, who would otherwise have abandoned their infants on doorsteps or in the street, or watched them die of illness or starvation.  Now given some bit of hope, represented by a scrap of cloth from a child’s garment or their own, young mothers left the hospital with a textile ticket and its exact match from the same piece of clothing was attached to a ledger recording the infant’s details and description, proof that this child was hers. There is some kind of magic there.

Sarah Bender

Foundling 16516. Patchwork made from printed and woven fabrics, embroidered with a heart and cut in half. One half was left with a boy who was admitted in 1767. He was named Benjamin Twirl by the Foundling Hospital. His mother Sara Bender reclaimed him on June 10th in 1775.

Joseph Floyd

Foundling 14922. A bit of threadbare linen ‘flowered all over with playing cards’ left with a boy in 1759. He was named Joseph Floyd by the Foundling Hospital. He was apprenticed in 1769.

Mentor Lesage

Foundling 14953. A boy was admitted on October 3rd of 1759 wearing ‘checkt stuff’ and was named Mentor Lesange by the Foundling Hospital. In 1770, he was apprenticed to a farmer named Hercules Durham.

Lucy Locket
Foundling 13187. A girl of 14 days wearing ‘yellow satten flowered’ was admitted June 20th in 1759 and given the name Lucy Locket. She a died a few weeks later on July 2nd.

Isabel Crane

Foundling 10563. A girl was admitted on the 22nd of November in 1758 with heart cut from red woolen cloth pinned to her cap, probably cut from her mother’s dress or coat. She was named Isabel Crane and died a few weeks later on December 16th.

A Boy Not Yet Christened

Foundling 2275. A boy admitted in September 1756  attached to a flowered silver ribbon with a paper note sewn into it and died the same month.

Apparently someone on the hospital staff folded the paper sheets into small packages of nine folds, most of which were never opened, and eventually collected into books. For this reason, they were accidentally preserved and rediscovered two and a half centuries later.


Francis Spaulding, “Swatch with Mother”, The World of Interiors, March 2011, p 102 – 108

Shelly Goldsmith, “Scrap of a Thing”, Selvedge, Issue 36, p 37 – 40

48 thoughts on “Foundling Swatches

    • Aren’t they?

      Foundling 16516 is one of the rare happy endings. Sarah Bender did leave an elaborately constructed fragment and it looks like she embroidered into it. The romantic side of me wonders if she didn’t add a bit of mojo that lent itself to their reunion.

    • Thank you for the link. Such a wonderful essay. I also like the blog and have just subscribed to it.

    • It is amazing to me how powerfully connected I felt to the people in these stories.

  1. What a beautiful and touching post, Aria.
    I’m glad that Donna put us in touch. I look forward to taking a look through your blog.

    • The Selvedge article was wonderful. My only frustration was that the pictures were much too small. It was like a tease so I went hunting for more information and larger photographs.

  2. “Waifcoat” indeed. That these little story fragments, or sadly not-story fragments, have been preserved by chance is incredible to me. Maybe there was more than one mother’s mojo at work here.

    • I’ve certainly never before known hospital records to last for centuries. One of the most easily and routinely discarded form of record keeping.

  3. Wow! I’ve never ever heard of this before! I added the link to this blog on the sidebar of my favorite links! Your art, your gardens, the interesting things like foundlings…oh thanks for sharing them all!

    • Thanks Sue. I’ve a number of interesting finds lined up. I’ve spent the long winter researching and reading and collecting while tucked by the wood stove completely unmotivated to make posts.

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  5. Here via CraftGossip.

    What a lovely, moving concept. I’m so happy that the memory of these children is preserved in some small way, especially those who, tragically, died so young. I think of the mothers hoping to get on their feet, find a better situation, so that they might go and fetch their children, only to discover that the babes died soon after being left with the hospital. :(

    • It is a tragic legacy indeed. Thanks for letting me know who pointed you here. I was not aware of CraftGossip.

  6. Pingback: A Must Read! « The Shop Sampler

    • Yes. I was deeply moved by the stories and inspired by the visual images, a bittersweet yet rewarding experience.

  7. Such sad scraps :( thank you for sharing these, it hits slightly closer to home since my grandfather and his sister had to be left at an orphanage by my great grandmother after their father died. From the stories she visited every week and was finally able to take them home again 5 years later after she married again.

    • So nice to hear that your great grandmother had a happy ending and was reunited with her children. Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. What a thought provoking post. My heart breaks for those mothers that must have held on to those bits of fabric until death. Imaginge their thoughts as they would hold those
    treasured bits of fabric in their hand.
    Thank you for this post.

    • Thanks for letting me know. I appreciate your comments. I’ve linked your name to your blog so that others can find it. I hope that’s okay. Let me know if you had a reason for not linking and I’ll remove it.

  9. A sad but very moving post, thank you for sharing this…It makes you wonder about their lifes… and that if this book had not been saved then their life whether short or long would never had be known……. lost souls ….. Hugs wendy

    • Thanks Wendy. It is strange isn’t it, the degree to which chance decides what part of history remains. Most people’s lives simply pass into obscurity. I think it is a reminder of how important it is to live in the here and now.

    • It is interesting, especially to catch a glimpse into the lives of ordinary people with no means and no assets. Most of recorded history favors the upper classes, people with fame and money.

  10. The scraps’ meaning tug at my heart. Thank you for your work on this subject.

    • I know what you mean. This is one of only two exhibits in my lifetime that gave me a lump in my throat. Thank you for visiting and for your comment.

  11. I am so pleased I was sent the link to this site. It amazes me that these records are so well kept and yet in 2011 we need acid free products to preserve our works.

    • So true. The quality of materials has deteriorated considerably. This is why I collect antique books and fabrics to work with.

  12. I’ve been working on my genealogy and find this fascinating…the scraps of fabric, the ledgers with the pre-printed lists and clear handwriting. What a wonderful find.

    It also has me thinking about how today, it seems so difficult for many to accept the concept of the “Baby Drop Box” that several countries have tried to revive. Or the stigma society attaches to mothers who need to utilize them. It seems to me that a mother who recognizes her limited ability to provide for her child and gives up that child in order for person to have a better life is doing the most unselfish thing a parent can do.

    Again, a lovely find.

    • In modern times, it seems that many practices which are perfectly effective and logical meet with strong resistance. There does seem to be a stigma attached to putting up children for adoption even though it usually a beneficial arrangement for everyone involved.

  13. A very interesting and moving story. How wonderful that these people had the common sense to try to help those women in need so long ago. This is the second story I read this week that touched my heart so much. Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Dear Aria,
    I’ve just come from your Embroidered Book Covers gallery on Flickr.
    I actually embroider book covers just like this! I do 16th/17thC embroidery. I’m going to tell my friends in my historical embroidery group about your gallery – they’ll just love it! One of my friends is reproducing a book cover from the Brit Library right now – if you’d like to look at her pics.
    Thankyou for such *beautiful* optimisations. I’m familiar with the images from the British Library and yours are *much* clearer! I really appreciate your effort!

    If you ever want any help in identifying the materials, I’m happy to help. For example, one book cover was identified as being embroidered with “silver threads” when in fact it was silver pearl purl. Or you may not care! The images are the important thing. But since I can identify them, I thought I’d offer. Those old sequins are called “oes” btw.

    I also enjoyed your other galleries …. the ones with wyverns and beasts. You certainly have some great interests!

    Thankyou again,
    Megan/Elmsley Rose in Australia

    • Thank you for the corrections and the link. Feel free to correct any other errors on the blog. I’m sure I’ll eventually take you up on that offer since embroidery is a strong interest of mine. .

      I know what you mean about the British Library database. It’s a wonderful resource but I have to work with the images extensively PhotoShop before I can use them. I think they just upload raw scans.

  15. These are so moving, such a powerful piece of history and so very sad though there are some scraps of hope in there. Its not just the poverty and the tiny lives cut adrift you think of, but also the mothers and what hard lives they must have lived to have to give these children up… heartbreaking…

    I have only just found you here so I will have to have a little wander back in time through your lovely fascinating blog! :)

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  17. Just found your blog. What a beautiful and heartfelt story. I had never heard of the foundling children before your post.

    Thank you so much for sharing this story.

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