Two women, two snuffling bundles, two circles that would never meet, but in that moment both women were united by circumstance, desperation, and the anonymity which the darkness afforded them. These two strands of a story, intertwined into one, twisted until there was little understanding as to where one story ended and the other began.
Each woman made her way to the same building, arriving with the same intention, though by different means.
One came by carriage, the wheels and horses’ hooves clattering discordantly against the cobbles. The carriage came to an abrupt stop in front of the grand redbrick building, dark and hushed as a church, silent apart from the snorting and pawing of the horses. Their shallow breathing and the gleam of sweat on their flanks were the only indications that this midnight romp through London had any underlying sense of urgency. She allowed the silence to gather again, as it emerged gradually like startled prey from under the bushes and behind the buildings, before she emerged furtively from her own sanctuary. Or maybe she was just hoping that her courage would accompany the silence.
The other woman came by foot. The soles of her shoes were worn soft by constant use, which hid the sound of her hurried footsteps. Her breath hitched occasionally and her body bowed as if the mere physical effort of staying composed had aged her beyond her years. She felt so drained by the walk, but she dreaded its end.
Each woman looked like the reflection of the other in the gloom. Whether or not that would have been the case in the bright, unflinching light of day was an entirely different matter. And in that way, the cover of darkness exposed her by hiding her: stripped her back to where there was no name or status or gossip. There was just the woman and her baby. She clutched the bundle to her chest as if strength of arm and feeling would somehow fuse the contents to its host. But in reality, it was strength that would sever mother from child. The gas lamps strained to cut through the London fog, to glean more, but their curiosity was little match for a London that wanted to stay hidden. The glint of a shoe buckle, the sheen of tears, a glance of a ring or lack thereof, was all they could discern in the gloom.
The knocks echoed through the square.
Light spilled out onto the pavement.
A furtive touch as she was ushered in.
There was no going back now.
But this was for the best.
It had to be done.
Before handing over her flesh and blood, she dealt with the easier transaction first. Baby steps, so to speak.
From the folds of her clothing, one woman presented a collection of crumpled notes, her £100, guaranteeing the acceptance of her child.
The other produced an empty hand. She reached into the cloth bag presented to her, held her breath. Her exhalation became a name, a prayer, a vow. “Alice.” Her babe hiccupped at her chest. Her shaking hand pulled out a white ball. White. Not black. Not red. Her child’s story would not end here.
It wasn’t loose morals, it wasn’t lack of control, it wasn’t thoughtlessness that drove a mother to this.
It was the hardest decision she would ever make.
Then came the moment she was dreading, the moment she’d wept about. But in reality, the process was very quick. Over in a heartbeat. One moment, the heartbeat was in her arms, the next, in the arms of a stranger. Suddenly, her arms felt awkward, empty, surplus to requirement.
She tucked a loose curl back into her hair.
She brushed her hands self-consciously down her apron.
Her arms ached to do anything to prevent the acknowledgment that this was their reality now.
The sense of finality was crushing. There was no last touch, last whisper, or last lullaby. Just the expectant look of the matron and a nod towards the door. There was sympathy in the expression, but also an understanding, a resignation, that she was not the first and would not be the last.
Although what was worse was the flicker of hope. Finality meant an end, and the chance to move on and start again. Hope meant clinging on to what could be, however desperate that was.
If one day, an illegitimate child would be accepted.
If one day, a transported husband would miraculously return.
All that hope lay in a small length of fabric, a token. A promise that one day a Foundling would be found again.
A swatch of silk, ornately embroidered with birds, butterflies, buds, and his name, Thomas. She clutched the other half to her chest.
A patterned linen ribbon from her hair, shakily embroidered with the initials ‘A.T.’, as if emotion had forced even the most experienced and weathered hands to falter. She grasped the other half by her side.
She turned towards the door.
And didn’t look back.
The child received a new name and a new future.
The token lay dormant and sealed away while the baby was nursed and raised in the country, as the child returned to London in a little brown uniform, while they played and learned to read, while he practised a new trade in the stables and she developed the skills for domestic service. These two children with their parallel lives.
The token was a reminder and a past. A past that many of the children would never know. All that was left to prove a connection bone-deep and to tie someone to their history.
These histories which ticked along into presents and futures. The mother who felt her world had ended, continued, much to her surprise, to wake up day after day as the Earth kept turning.
The years passed, but she caught herself,
Watching the children play at the market.
Seeing a young woman presented at court.
Wondering what her child was doing now.
Every now and then, in the privacy of her room or a quiet moment in the evening, she would remove the scrap of fabric from the locket around her neck. The edges were worn and frayed and the colours faded from the constant handling. The removal of the silk, the removal of the linen: its familiar feel between her fingers and the soft reminder against her lips, became a sacred ritual, the most valuable and irreplaceable of relics.
She was unlucky. The eighteenth century was one of mobility and change, but progress is always gradual and illegitimacy was still synonymous with shame. To protect her family, she had to deny herself. She had a household, a husband, and children she loved dearly. Children who ran around her skirts, giggling and squealing, but always with the shadow of her first running along behind them, desperate to keep up. At times it was suffocating. She rode when it became too much, finding peace with the horses who didn’t ask questions, enjoying the freedom of a canter, and the ecstasy of a gallop when far from prying eyes.
In the stable, she chose her horse. A chestnut gelding with a white sock, Thomas.
The groom approached her,
“This one, ma’am?”
She looked towards the groom and nodded,
“Definitely.” He looked familiar, this gangly youth with brown hair and a smile in his eyes. “How long have you been here?”
“First day, ma’am. Brand new.” He bowed slightly, “Oliver.”
She smiled, “Nice to meet you, Oliver.”
She was lucky. An aunt of comfortable means passed away and had no children to make use of her legacy, so it found its way to her niece instead. Financial security. Or at least, more than she’d had before. Neither her husband nor his letters had found their way back to her over the high seas, but there was still one family member she could find. The embers of hope flickered and caught, warming her despite the autumn chill. And she smiled, she smiled until her cheeks ached.
There was no fanfare or grand reunion. There were furtive glances and a shy shuffle. Her mother’s arms twitched at her sides as if finally remembering themselves after all those years. The threadbare silk fell from her fingers. What further need did one have for the relic when the very saint stood before them?
“Alice?” It came out as a question.
The young girl with her small hands and serious lips, and the same green eyes as her mother, looked tentatively towards the Secretary, stern behind his desk, who nodded, “My name is Eunice, ma’am.”
The girl’s mother, whatever her name ended up being, stumbled forward and clutched her Foundling in her arms, just like she had all those years before. The difference was that this time letting go didn’t mean an end, but a new beginning. Tears streamed down her face, her heart throbbed, and the laughter bubbled up out of her as if finally remembering how to escape.
London has collected some fascinating stories over the centuries, and this one was inspired by the history of the Foundling Hospital, the oldest children’s charity in England. It was founded in 1739 “for the maintenance and education of… deserted young children”. Over the course of the actual Hospital’s lifetime, between 1741 when the first babies were admitted and 1954 when the last pupil was placed in foster care, the Hospital cared for around 25,000 children, and while the Hospital doesn’t exist anymore, its work is now carried on by Coram which still occupies pretty much the same site as the original institution.
Find more information about visiting the Foundling Museum here.
Living in mid-eighteenth century London was tough. Like, really pretty nasty, especially if you weren’t rich. By the end of the century, London’s population essentially doubled to about one million people – it was polluted, loud, and congested. You might think, well not much has changed, but we should thank our lucky stars. Some shops needed candles lit at midday just to cut through the sooty gloom. In 1749, there was a traffic jam on London Bridge which took almost three hours to clear. Oh, and try open sewers running down the streets, no National Health Service, and still in 1780, less than 3% of the population of England and Wales could vote.
This was the world the Foundlings were born into. Naturally, many of the babies came from young mothers with no money, who simply couldn’t afford to look after them, but this was certainly not exclusively the case. Women came from all different backgrounds: maybe a husband had been transported to Australia as punishment for a crime and the mother couldn’t care for the child alone, or a woman whose family couldn’t bare the shame of an illegitimate baby. We can only guess at the multitude of reasons which would force a mother to give up her child. I followed two different women, one poor, one rich, to try and demonstrate that this was not an issue isolated to one part of society.
The tradition of leaving a token with the Foundling was only necessary until 1760 when the admission system changed, but it meant so much to mothers to leave a token with their child that the process continued for many decades after. Not all of the tokens were bits of fabric like I described, they could be pretty much anything. Just something that the mother could describe if and when she came to reclaim her child. The Foundling Museum which also shares the site of the original Hospital, has a touching permanent display of some of these tokens. There are coins etched with names and birthdays, padlocks, jewellery, and even a hazelnut where clearly a mother had literally nothing else to give to identify her child.
I’m writing from a general period of the 1740s and ‘50s when the tokens were in their heyday and the general system of admission was a lottery to cope with the massive number of children who were arriving on their doorstep. Mothers were asked to pick a ball from a bag: a white ball meant the child was accepted, a red ball put them on a waiting list, and a black ball meant that the child was turned away. The £100 donation was also a process of admission, but I’ve taken a bit of artistic license there; technically that was only practised after 1760, but it did happen! Donate £100 to the charity and the child was admitted “no questions asked”.
In addition, I probably should have been a bit harsher with my endings because, as sad as it is, in reality, between 1741 and 1760 only 152 out of over 16,000 children were actually reclaimed. The mortality rate was also quite high, and so there were also many cases where mothers arrived to reclaim their child only to find out that their baby had died shortly after arrival. Unfortunately two-thirds of those admitted in this period died, but that was still better than the 50% who died in infancy in the rest of London. So forgive me for giving my characters a slightly happier ever after.