Marchmont Street Tokens
Why does a street in Bloomsbury have metal ‘tokens’ embedded into the pavement? Many people walk along this side street and don’t notice these unobtrusive decorations but they were placed there as a permanent public art installation in 2010 called “Tokens” by John Aldus. There are twenty artworks to see and they are replicas of tokens held at the nearby Foundling Museum.
The Foundling Museum tells the story of the Foundling Hospital which cared for abandoned children in this area from 1739 to the 1920s. The hospital was set up by Thomas Coram who was a pioneer in child welfare, along with William Hogarth – the artist, and George Frederic Handel – the composer. Each left a lasting legacy as Hogarth convinced well known artists of the day to donate paintings to the Hospital and wealthy people would then pay to see them thus creating the first art gallery in London. Handel gave annual performances of The Messiah at the Hospital which brought an income and his Will and scores of his work are on display at the Museum. Coram is a children’s charity that took its name from Thomas Coram to remember all he did to support vulnerable children. There is also the fun free playground in central London, Coram’s Fields.
Anyway, back to those tokens. Why tokens? It can be hard today to imagine the desperation mothers felt at not being able to care for their children. There was no social welfare and there were three major wars in the 1700s so mothers were often left alone and unable to support their family. Before the Foundling Hospital opened babies were often abandoned and the streets of London had piles of dead babies. It sounds sickening now but it was a sign of the times. There was literally nowhere for the mothers to turn to before the Foundling Hospital so it played an important role in saving lives.
As there were so many children who needed care not all could be accepted at the Hospital and there was a ‘pick a ball from a bag’ system to see if you could join the queue that day. If you got the right colour you stayed that day, otherwise you had to try again and hope your child didn’t die before you could return.
There were then further strict admittance rules as the child had to be under 12 months old, illegitimate, the mother’s first child and from a mother of good character. These rules could be ‘bent’ in some circumstances and there’s an exhibition at the Foundling Museum at the moment (Fate, Hope & Charity) which includes a heart-wrenching hand-written letter from a mother held at Newgate jail in 1757. In the letter Margaret Larney describes herself as “the unfortunate women that lies under sentens of Death”. Two of her children had already died in the jail with her but she gave birth to a son at the jail who was accepted at the Foundling Hospital along with another brother. She was later executed.
Anyway, why are those tokens along the pavement? Each child that was accepted at the Foundling Hospital was given a new name but the parent, usually the mother, would leave a token to be kept to help identify their child if they were ever in a position to return and collect them. The tokens were never given to the children and were kept wrapped in a piece of paper with the admittance information and filed by date order.
The tokens were small trinkets such as buttons which might show that the father was in the army or small pieces of fabric that could be matched up with the rest of the pattern if the child was ever collected. Thimbles might express the mother’s love even more strongly as dressmaking might be her livelihood and she would be reducing her ability to work by leaving something so valuable with her abandoned child. Coins with added notches to personalise them were sometimes used as tokens and some tokens were designed and engraved specially with as many clues to the identity of the parents as could be included in such a small item.
Marchmont Street is named after the 2nd Earl of Marchmont (1675-1740), one of the founding governors of the Foundling Hospital. The metal representations embedded into the walkway show symbols of hope from eighteenth century women; they show love and the strong desire to give their child a better life than they could offer them. So what seems like very little today actually signify a lot of social history and a very emotional story.
How to Find Them
The nearest tube station is Russell Square. Cross over the zebra crossing right outside the tube station and Marchmont Street is straight ahead (just to the right of Tesco). The tokens are on the right-hand side as you walk up the street.
On Marchmont Street, just after the tokens, is Alara, a great Healthfood shop with an excellent fresh salad take-away. The Brunswick Centre is popular for shopping and the Foundling Museum and Coram’s Fields are the other side of the Brunswick Centre.
All images © Laura Porter.
Laura Porter writes the About.com London Travel site and is also a VisitBritain Super Blogger. She fits in further freelance writing while sustaining an afternoon tea addiction to rival the Queen’s. Laura is @AboutLondon on twitter and @AboutLondon Laura on Facebook. You can find out more about her at about.me/LauraPorter.