Mourning Children with Objects

By Jennifer Jorm, The University of Queensland


High rates of infant and child mortality did not numb parents to the loss of their children. Mourning tokens commissioned after the death of children, and the identification tokens left with children at the London Foundling Hospital, express the sorrow parents felt at parting. A seventeenth-century children’s ring inscribed ‘THIS SPARK WILL GROW’ expresses the kinds of ideas parents had about their children. It is clear from this inscription that childhood was viewed as a distinct state of being from adulthood – fragile, yet full of potential.

Mourning Tokens

The death of children was mourned with tokens like those used for adults. Figure 1 is a mourning ring from 1801. Inscribed on the enamel are the initials of seven children who died within the space of a week, between 16 and 23 February 1801. How the children died is unknown; however, contagious illnesses were once common causes of mortality that may have struck these children successively. The style of the ring is indistinguishable from mourning jewellery made upon the death of adults. This indicates that the death of children triggered the same emotional desire for commemoration as the death of adults.

Gold mourning ring enamelled in black with white border. Inscribed in reserve on front enamel in gold lettering,
Figure 1: Gold mourning ring enamelled in black with white border. Inscribed in reserve on front enamel in gold lettering, ‘MB Agd 16 SB Agd 12 WB Agd 10 EB Agd 9 TB Agd 7 RB Agd 5 CB Agd 2’, c.1801. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Figure 2 shows a mourning ring from 1792 commemorating the death of a two-year-old child. Under the glass dome is an illustration of a rose bush with one bud of the plant broken off. The inscription reads ‘Nip’d in the bud’. The motto on this ring is yet another representation of the child’s potential: as a growing thing, but cut down too soon.

Gold mourning ring enamelled in white.
Figure 2: Gold mourning ring enamelled in white. Illustration under interior. Inscribed ‘Nip’d in the Bud’, c.1792. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Mourning jewellery was commissioned even for very young infants, casting into doubt the claims of some scholars that the deaths of children were not mourned.[1] Figure 3, for example, is a mourning ring for an eight-month-old child.


Gold mourning ring enamelled in white set with rose cut diamonds.
Figure 3: Gold mourning ring enamelled in white set with rose cut diamonds. Inscribed ‘Matthew Arnold died 10 May 1742 aged 8 months’, c.1742. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


The Foundling Hospital Tokens

The London Foundling Hospital, chartered in 1739, was the first of its kind in London. It was founded ‘for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children’.[2] In 1741, observers at the hospital during admissions noted the grief of women surrendering children and recorded that ‘a more moving scene can’t well be imagined’.[3] The hospital’s requirement that a token be given to each child admitted to the hospital was for the practical, rather than sentimental, purpose of identifying the child later, should the parents be able to come and claim it.[4] Typically the token was split or cut in half, one half to be stored in the records of the hospital, the other to stay with the parent admitting the child.[5] After 1760 petitions were no longer anonymous, and so the tokens were no longer required, because the hospital could use names and personal information as identifiers. Men and women continued to send tokens with their children for the next 40 years, even though it was no longer necessary. This is a testament to the emotional value of this practice for these parents.[6]

Poverty often determined the material form of tokens, with many women having nothing to give but the clothes on their bodies, and so a piece of fabric was cut from the child’s sleeve by the hospital staff and placed in the register. Figure 3 shows a common type of fabric token – a heart cut from cloth with a piece of ribbon attached.[7] The cloth would have been something the parent had access to, probably inexpensive, just as the ribbon was. However, whoever created the token took care to cut it into the shape of a heart.


Heart-shaped paper and cloth token.
Figure 4: Heart-shaped paper and cloth token. London Metropolitan Archive, LMA/A/FH/A/09/1/128, Foundling 11490.


Many parents used letters as tokens in the hope that the child would read it someday. For one father, the letter was not only a token but a message to his son – with instructions on how they might one day meet again:


My Dear Childe it was with great sorrow and trouble that I parted with you to send you to the Hospital but as it was not in your mothers power nor mine to keep you we thought it best so to Do hoping that the Great God would cast his eye of protection on you which I hope he has Now My Dear Child I would have you when you came to man estate and if in England to look and sarch [sic] narrowy into the Dailey Advertiser for if God pleases to let me Live till the year of 1775 I will advertise to find you out and in the meantime my Dear Child I will tell you your name which is this [Joseph Titus Von Dubank] Born January the 10th 1757 in the Lyining Hospital in Duke Street Grouener Square London and Carried to the Foundling Hospital February the 17th 1757 this is your Fathers Writing who prays God to for ever Bles you and Desires you will keep this wrighting tel you Die.

My Dear Child Remain your Loveing Father tell Death plans to Cal me hence

Joseph Von. DuBank[8]


This not only served the purpose of providing a token according to the hospital’s rules, but also served as a hopeful gesture – that the parent might someday get the child back.

Contemporaries believed that objects had talismanic powers that could bind the holders and replace the absent body with an object connected to it, acting as a physical representation of what was physically lost. The talisman further corporealises an emotion such as grief, giving it a body through a physical object and therefore giving it legitimacy. By creating mourning tokens and by customising the tokens they left with children at the London Foundling Hospital, parents were finding a way to express their grief.

Jennifer Jorm is a PhD student at The University of Queensland, researching emotions and animals in eighteenth-century England. Her recently completed MPhil thesis explored the material culture of love and loss during the eighteenth century. Jennifer is a Postgraduate Representative for the Society for the History of Emotions.


[1] See Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, New York (New York: Vintage Books, 1962); Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York: Basic Books, 1975); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage In England 1500–1800 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977).

[2] John Brownlow, Memoranda, or, Chronicles of the Foundling Hospital: Including Memoirs of Captain Coram, (London 1847).

[3] Patricia Crawford, Parents of Poor Children in England 1580–1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 62.

[4] John Styles, Threads of Feeling: The London Foundling Hospital’s Textile Tokens, 1740–1770 (London: The Foundling Museum, 2010), p. 15.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 17.

[7] London Metropolitan Archive, LMA/A/FH/A/09/1/128. Foundling 11490.

[8] London Metropolitan Archive, LMA/A/FH/A/09/1/43. Foundling 3536.









One thought

  1. An interesting read, and still tugs at your heart strings long after the events – you can imagine the pain the parents must have felt, and it certainly gives us a human connection to those in the past

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