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Zoom sur Londres : The story of the Foundling Museum

Written by on 2 mars 2020

Bonjour, je vous propose de rendre visite avec moi à Londres. À travers des mini-episodes, on vous illustre les multiples facettes de cette ville, ses lieux, son histoire, et ses habitants. Aujourd’hui, rendez-vous chez the Foundling Museum, ” le musée des enfants trouvés “.

A dix minutes de marche de la station d’Eurostar à St Pancras, dans un petit coin tranquille, se trouve the Foundling Museum. C’est une histoire fascinante que nous explique la directrice, Caro Howell.

Caro: The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital, which was simultaneously the UK’s first children’s charity but also its first public art gallery. It was founded in 1739 to take in babies, who otherwise would have been abandoned on the streets of London.

In mainland Europe, from about the 13th century, foundling hospitals had been in existence. But they were run by the Catholic church. So of course, in Protestant England, there wasn’t that system in place.

The European model heavily inspired the London Foundling Hospital, but it had one crucial difference as Caro explains:

Caro: They wanted to have a system in place, whereby if the mother’s circumstance ever changed, she could come back and claim her baby.

All other foundling hospitals, up until then, relied on hatches or turn-tables; so mothers would place their babies in the hatch, ring a bell, and walk away, and they would never be able to discover what happened to their child.

Henry Nelson O’Neil (1817-1880)

A Mother depositing her Child at the Foundling Hospital in Paris, c.1855

Part of the Foundling Museum collection


Whereas at the Foundling Hospital in London, all she needed was to remember the date that she had left her baby, and to bring with her a little piece of fabric that had been cut from her baby’s clothes on admission.

That fabric was cut in half, and half was given to the mother, and half was pinned to the baby’s admission form. The fabrics could be matched up, and the identity of the baby could be discovered.

One upshot of that is that the archive of the Foundling Hospital contains the largest collection of 18th century textiles in this country. All these little scraps of fabric that very often would never have survived; it would have been worn until it fell to rags and was burnt.

The other thing that we have in the museum that visitors find very poignant… Mothers were asked to bring with them something small, that was individual to them, that would be a back-up. These little objects include hand-stitched objects, coins, tickets, gambling tokens…

A few of the tokens left by mothers hoping one day to reunite with their children, displayed at the Foundling Museum.


In one of the Foundling Museum’s galleries, a painting from the Victorian era shows a mother coming to reclaim her three-year-old child. She’s clutching a huge box of toys.

But in reality, only a very small proportion of children were ever reclaimed. The tokens their mothers left behind are a reminder of this.

Caro: These are universal human emotions and pains and stories, that are unchanging. And that’s partly why I think visitors react so strongly, people’s emotions are so engaged in this museum. Because it doesn’t matter that 250 years have passed since a young woman left her baby and this small object, or this small piece of fabric.

For our visitors, men and women, young and old, parents and those without children, that fundamental human emotion, that drive, that desperation, but also love, it just rings through the centuries.

C’était Caro Howell, directrice du Foundling Museum: https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/


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