A Rebus Token for an Abandoned Child

Rebus token © The Foundling Museum
Rebus token © The Foundling Museum / Rebus token © The Foundling Museum

The basket hanging on the gate at London's Foundling Hospital served a sad purpose: Mothers could place their babies inside the basket and slip away into the night. But most of the children brought to the hospital—a children's home where England's poorest kids were brought for a chance at care their parents could not provide—weren't completely anonymous. Though they were given a new name when they were brought inside, most were left with a tiny token of some kind—a piece of property parents could use to identify themselves if they were ever able to take their children back.

This token is one of the more unique specimens of the thousands of such artifacts left at the Foundling Hospital over the years. These days, the hospital has been turned into a museum, and its token collection showcases the inventiveness and anguish of the destitute children's desperate parents.

The Foundling Hospital opened its doors in 1741. It wasn't a "hospital" in the traditional sense: Rather, the word hospital indicated the hospitality and charity poor children would find inside. The tokens left with children date from the early days of the hospital, when parents could leave their kids there no questions asked.

Kids who entered the Foundling Hospital didn't stay inside the building. Rather, they were baptized, given new names, and sent to wet nurses or "nurse mothers" who took care of the children in the country. When they turned 5, they returned to the hospital, where they received an education. Wet nurses could return to visit their surrogate children, but birth mothers could not.

Workers at the hospital carefully recorded the clothing and identifying markers left with every child who entered. At first, many children were left with a small scrap of fabric (the parent would take the other half and the halves could be joined together again if they reunited). But over time, that practice was discontinued, and many parents left tokens with their children instead. They would attach notes and all kinds of markers, from pennies that were engraved with names and dates to more complicated puzzles like these.

The heartbreaking rebus on this token shows a child in a Moses basket—a universal symbol for a child who was given up. The rebus spells out "I want relief" and has the child's date of birth. It's a creative gesture that shows as much about the parents' inventiveness as the plight of their child.

"It is quite remarkable that the parent(s) of the child admitted with this coin went to the trouble of having it engraved with this despairing message," Emma Yandle of The Foundling Museum told mental_floss via email. Today, the coin is on display at the Foundling Museum. The hospital collected over 18,000 such tokens in the first 50 years of its existence.

The Foundling Hospital eventually became a charity that operates to this day—an example of some of the earliest attempts to help children in an age without foster care or social services. But though the tokens left in the hospital are seen as fascinating artifacts of a bygone era today, they also have a more anguished meaning. Tragically, the fact that the token still exists means that the child was never reunited with its birth parents.