By Dr Sue Jones. Sue has taught at Birkbeck, University of London and University of Plymouth. She lives a double life, researching seventeenth century piracy and working in the Gingerbread advice team.
The novels of Charles Dickens often featured children who lived in single parent families or who were orphaned. Oliver Twist, one of Dickens’ most famous characters, was the child of a single mother, Agnes Fleming. On discovering she was pregnant as the result of a relationship with a married man, Agnes had left her family home to avoid disgrace.
As there was no state support, life for a single parent in Victorian England was extremely hard. Oliver’s mother died, penniless, giving birth to him in a workhouse. Her baby was unnamed, and she left him with just a locket to remember her by.
Dickens used his work to highlight the plight of the poor and may have based the story of Oliver Twist on the lives of children who lived at the Foundling Hospital, an institution based close to his home in London.
Established in 1739 after a 17-year campaign by Thomas Coram, the Foundling Hospital was the first purpose-built home for children whose mothers were unable to care for them due to poverty or discrimination. A child born outside of marriage was regarded as ‘illegitimate’ and in the 19th century, illegitimate children were half as likely to survive as those with married parents because of their poverty.
Employers were unlikely to take on single women with a child due to the lack of childcare provision and the stigma attached to illegitimacy. Some single mothers found themselves trying to scrape a living taking in low paid work such as sewing or washing, and often they resorted to begging. Many would eventually enter the workhouse which would provide food and a bed in return for manual labour, but conditions were harsh. Children were often separated from their parents and, like Oliver Twist, treated cruelly. Unmarried mothers were marked out by being forced to wear a uniform which differed from those of other inmates.
A child was considered more fortunate to be taken in by the Foundling Hospital than stay in the workhouse, where many did not survive. The Hospital aimed to provide a home for children while their mothers re-established themselves in society. All children had their name changed on admission but mothers leaving their babies at the Foundling Hospital could also leave a small object with their child as a token of identification, as Agnes left her locket for Oliver Twist.
These tokens would be kept with their admission papers and not opened until the mother returned to reclaim their child. The Foundling Museum holds hundreds of these incredibly touching tokens – handmade trinkets, jewellery, ribbon, a hazelnut on a string – left by mothers so they could prove their identity when they came to reclaim their child. These tiny objects stand as testimony to the love and determination of single mothers who never intended to abandon their children but saw their stay at the Foundling Hospital as a temporary separation enabling them to build a better life which they could finally live together as a family.
You can find out more about the Foundling Hospital and see some of the tokens left with the foundling babies here: https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/our-art-and-objects/foundling-collections/tokens/