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I’ll Take My Coffee with a Splash of History, Please

Posted by Mary Chaktsiris
27 January 2012 - 12:27pm

On my way home from the British Library this week I found myself trampling over the past. I mean this in the literal sense; embedded into the sidewalk beneath my feet was a small iron heart with initials. I stopped, looked around, noticed for the first time that every few steps I took I was rewarded by more of these small tokens encased in concrete and taking the form of coins, lockets, and chains.

My first reaction: What does this all mean!? My second reaction: Is there a plaque that explains it all? And there was. Tucked away into the side of a bustling outdoor mall littered with high street stores and coffee shops in the heart of Bloomsbury, there stood a metal sign indicating this as site of the London Foundling Hospital which operated on the site in various forms from the 1740’s to the 1920’s. The tokens used in the sidewalk installation were reproductions of items mothers pinned to their infants, which were often everyday objects such as coins or buttons, in the hopes that they may one day be able to return, reclaim, and recognize their child.

The few articles I pulled out of the library catalogue told me the hospital operated as a home for abandoned children which in 1740s London could reach the staggering number of 1,000 a year (Outhwaite, 498). Other research argues children entering the Hospital in its early years of operation were abandoned but not illegitimate, placed there by poor or destitute parents who travelled in to London from surrounding parishes (Levene, 202). The practice of leaving tokens died out in the early nineteenth centuries when mothers were given receipts when placing their child in the hospital. The tokens in the sidewalk got me thinking about the way the past is paved over, dismantled, and replaced both with physical development and ideas.

I’m living in London, England as part of a six-month research term and over my three weeks here I’ve walked down Marchmont Street, a short block from Russell Square, dozens of times and never noticed these tokens of affection and past belonging in cement. Without that heart in the sidewalk, I’m fairly certain I would have spent my whole time here thinking the former site of the Foundling Hospital was nothing more than a place to grab a coffee. The link for me to engage with the past was John Aldus’ 2010 installation Tokens, which placed objects from the past before me in a way that broke into my everyday stream of thinking usually devoted, at least on the way home, to thinking about the grocery list.

I think the moment of importance in History Education then is that initial instance of intrigue, when we are unexpectedly fascinated by a seemingly ordinary object or occurrence that we are forced to confront in extraordinary ways. It’s about engaging students and ourselves with the past that surrounds us everywhere we go, both at home and abroad, and about developing the tools to find out more. It’s about beginning with a question as simple as “what’s this?” that might lead someone (like yours truly) to think differently about an “ordinary” space.

I do think about that place in Bloomsbury just across from the Russell Square tube station differently now. I think about it as the former site of an institutionalized enterprise that sought to care for children but that also sought to regulate the morality both of the children they were charged with caring for and the mothers who placed their children in the hospital’s care. I think of it in my mind as a site of great emotional importance, a site of leaving and arriving, and perhaps now a site of forgetting. And all this started with a short cut home from the library, the need for a latte, and a heart in cement. So yes, I’ll take my coffee with a splash of history, please.

Selected Sources:

Levene, Alysa. “The Origins of the Children of the London Foundling Hospital, 1741- 1760: A Reconsideration” Continuity and Change 18(2) (2003): 201-235.

Muller, Anja ed. Fashioning Childhood in the Eighteenth Century: Age and Identity. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006.

Outhwaite, R. B. “‘Objects of Chairity’: Petitions to the London Foundling Hospital, 1768-72” Eighteenth-Century Studies 32(4) (Summer, 1999): 497-510.

For more information, see The Foundling Museum’s website