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Example of a page from a Foundling Hospital billet book

​A page from a Foundling Hospital billet book, with a fabric token pinned to the page

​How to access the Foundling Hospital Billet Books

We are making a change to the way in which Foundling Hospital billet books will be made available to view at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA).

About the billet books and tokens

The Foundling Hospital was established in the eighteenth century by Thomas Coram as a home for babies whose mothers were unable to care for them or at risk of abandonment. When a child was left in the care of the hospital, an admission form, known as a 'billet', was filled out. This billet would record the clothing the child was wearing on arrival, any physical distinguishing marks and, perhaps most poignantly, tokens left by the child's mother could be attached to the form.

A token would usually be pinned to the billet form as a means of enabling the child to be reunited with the mother should circumstances later allow. The idea was that the mother would keep a matching token, and would present this if trying to identify which child was theirs. The token might be a scrap of fabric, a playing card, coin, thimble or other small object. Many of the tokens are still attached to the billets, suggesting that the mother and child were probably never reunited.

The swatches of fabric in the billet books have been found invaluable by numerous researchers in the study of eighteenth century fabrics.

Damage to the books

Owing to the brittle nature of the paper billets, more pins are coming loose during handling so putting the textiles at risk of being misplaced and damaging the billets themselves, and the wax seals on the later billets are coming loose.

There are over 200 volumes of these original billets (References A/FH/A/09/001/001-203)..

Change in access arrangements

In order to better protect the billet books, at the request of the owner Coram, future access to these fragile and very special volumes will be will be by appointment only, in the LMA Conservation Studio.

Altering the access arrangements means that their use can be better supported - a conservator will assist with document handling and deal with any issues as they arise.

A small number of the books are so fragile that the conservation team have designated them 'unfit for consultation' meaning they can't be looked at under any circumstances. The rest of the books, however, will remain available to view, but you will need to book an appointment with the conservation team in the Studio.

Bookings need to be made at least 48 hours in advance. Viewing slots in the conservation studio can be booked between 10 am and 12 pm in the morning, and between 2 pm and 4 pm in the afternoon (subject to a space being available).

Arranging for access to the billet books

These access arrangements apply only to the billet books under the references given below. Access to the rest of the Foundling Hospital archives is unchanged.

With effect from Monday 20 March 2017, the following conditions will apply.

  • Please contact us via the enquiry service to arrange access to the billet books (references A/FH/A/09/001/001-203)
  • 48 hours advance notice is required
  • Access will only be available in the LMA conservation studio
Enquiry service Ask a question

 Find out more

  • At the Foundling Museum you can find much more detail on the history and collections of the Foundling Hospital, including a more detailed explanation of the way the Billet Books and Tokens were used
  • Our family history leaflet Finding Your Foundling (46KB), explains how you can trace ancestors in the records of the Foundling Hospital, and what information you might expect to find
  • You can see images of the Foundling Hospital on Collage: The London Picture Archive  
  • The Foundling Forum is a group for those interested in finding out about the latest research which has been carried out on the collections

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You can use the LMA Catalogue to further explore the collections of the Foundling Hospital

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More articles about the Foundling Hospital on the LMA website

28 February 2017
Last Modified:
26 September 2018