Tokens of love
A piece of cheap jewellery, a coin or a letter from an Irishwoman pleading for her child as she faced the gallows – these were mementoes left by mothers giving up their babies in 18th century London, writes MARK HENNESSY
Margaret Larney went to her death on the gallows at Tyburn on Monday, October 2nd, 1758, still protesting that she had been convicted of counterfeiting on the false testimony of a woman “known to her from child”. Larney, born in Wicklow 34 years before, had written to London’s Foundling Hospital, pleading that her son James should be given the chance to know his older brother, John, already an inmate of the Bloomsbury Fields institution.
Today, her letter forms one of the centre-pieces of an exhibition, Fate, Hope and Charity at the Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square in London, which includes love tokens left behind by 18,000 mothers between 1741 and 1760 as they lost sight of their children.
“I am the unfortunate woman that lies under sentens of Death in Newgatt, ” Larney wrote from her cell in Newgate Prison awaiting execution. She had two other children in the workhouse and a husband, Terence, who had fled the scene.
“I beg for the tender mercy of God to let them know one and other for Dear Sir I hear you are a very good Gentelman and God blessing and mine be with you and they for ever. Sir, I am your humble servant, Margaret Larney.”
The Wicklow woman’s steps towards her end came on December 1757 when Larney was held at her home in Drury Lane by bailiffs investigating the widespread tampering with “the King’s coin” by counterfeit, or by shaving the edges of the coins to remove the silver or gold. Two weeks later, she stood trial for her life in the Old Bailey charged with “feloniously and traiterously” using a file to “diminish one piece of good and lawful money of the current coin of this kingdom, call’d a guinea”.
Larney’s so-called friend, Alice Diamond, nee Boyce, had previously evaded charges of counterfeiting, but she was quick to support the prosecution’s case, even though she could not claim to have witnessed Larney’s recent alleged crimes. “How long is it ago since you saw her file a guinea?” Boyce was asked.
“It is rather better than 10 months ago,” replied Diamond. “Where did she file it?” pressed the prosecutor. “In her own room in Drury Lane,” he was told.
“How came she to let you see her?” the prosecutor went on. “I call’d there as an acquaintance to see her; I had heard something of her doing it, but never saw her do it before,” replied the woman, seen as a friend up until then by Larney.
However, Larney was not without friends. A woman by the name of Elizabeth Roberts told magistrates that not only was Larney innocent, but that the files found in her lodgings had been left there weeks before in suspicious circumstances.
The judgment was not long in coming: death. Larney was to be drawn “upon a burdle” from Newgate to Tyburn “and then burnt to death”, though that sentence had by then morphed into death by hanging.