Victorian Baby Farming
Being pregnant outside the bonds of marriage brought shame and ostracism upon the mother in Victorian England. Sometimes, unscrupulous women took on the job of looking after the infants for a fee. Some of these surrogate caregivers found that dead babies were cheaper to raise than live ones.
The Illegitimate Children
In the 19th century, contraception was primitive, and yet becoming pregnant outside the sanctity of marriage was deeply frowned upon. Poor women could throw themselves and their children on the mercy of the parish and enter the horrible world of the workhouse.
Others had to go into the prostitution trade to feed their youngsters because few employers would hire a female shamed by being an unwed mother.
Some resorted to abandonment, but if the mother was discovered, the courts were very unsympathetic. The very desperate resorted to infanticide, but this was a crime that carried the death penalty if discovered.
A few were lucky enough to find a good family to adopt their child.
For young women from middle- and upper-class families, there were baby farmers. For a fee, women undertook to raise infants and remove the stain of scandal from a family’s reputation.
The Baby Farmers
Paid caregivers had been around long before the Victorian era, but the strict and largely hypocritical prudery of that age gave the trade a boost.
Advertisements started to appear in newspapers offering to foster or adopt unwanted newborns. For a lump-sum payment, the baby would be placed with a woman loosely referred to as a nurse.
The families were likely assured the infant would be raised in the best of all possible worlds and the caregivers would do everything necessary to find the child a high-quality permanent home. Perhaps the family might leave the infant behind with a few qualms, but at least the little problem had been made to go away and Daisy’s reputation was intact; that’s what mattered.
No doubt some of these “nurses” were well-intentioned; others were not. And that brings us to Margaret Waters.
The Brixton Baby Farmer
Widowed before she was 30, Margaret Waters turned to baby farming to make a living. She charged eight to ten pounds (about $980 to $1,225 in today’s money) to take care of an unwanted child at her home in Brixton, south London.
In the beginning, she passed the infants on to other baby farmers and kept about two pounds as her commission. However, she figured out that she could keep the full amount by keeping the child and disposing of it in other ways.
It became her practice to dose the babies up with laudanum, an opiate that was freely available from tobacconists, barbers, and even stationers. This killed their appetites and sedated them so that didn’t make any noise. After a few days, the youngsters died of starvation.
Wrapped in rags or brown paper, the victims would be left in back alleys or under railway arches.
Eventually, the number of children dying in Waters' care was noticed and a policeman was sent to her address to have a look. He testified about what he found: “Some half-dozen little infants lay together on a sofa, filthy, starving, and stupefied by laudanum.”
The youngsters were immediately put into state care but most were too weakened to survive. It’s thought she killed a total of 16 children, perhaps more.
According to a contemporary report in The Guardian:
“She considered the parents of illegitimate children who wanted to get rid of them by any means were more to blame than persons like herself. If there were no parents of this class, there would be no baby farmers.”
Trial and Execution of Margaret Waters
The case came up in September 1870 at the Old Bailey. Margaret Waters faced five murder charges, but only one conviction was needed for the sentence of death by hanging to be passed.
Appeals and other delays were speedily dealt with in those days so, on October 11, 1870, Margaret Waters was put in the hands of William Calcraft, Britain’s official hangman at the time.
The following day, The Times opined that “A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred.”
Waters was the first baby farmer to be executed but not the last; that distinction went to Rhoda Willis.
Murder on a Train
Rhoda Willis had a good education and a solid middle-class upbringing, but life was not kind to her. Her husband died young. She lived with another man but that relationship fell apart and she started drinking.
Desperate for money, she decided to take up baby farming. Through an advertisement, she was contacted by a woman whose unmarried sister was pregnant. The baby was born on June 3, 1907, and, by arrangement, the newborn was handed over, along with a fee of £8 the next day.
The transfer took place at a railway station north of Cardiff, Wales. By the time Rhoda returned by train to her lodging in Cardiff, the newborn was dead. A couple of days later, Rhoda came back to her lodging drunk and as her landlady helped her to bed, she noticed a bundle. It was the dead child.
Rhoda Willis was executed on August 14, 1907, the last woman to be hanged for a baby-farm murder.
Amelia Dyer: The Ogress of Reading
Finally, we come to the person who was probably the worst baby killer of them all—Amelia Dyer—who acquired the unfortunate nickname of "The Ogress of Reading." Some experts believe she may have murdered as many as 400 children.
Born in 1836, Dyer trained as a nurse, married, and became a widow in 1869. Without a husband for support, she took up baby farming, but babies kept dying in her care, leading to a conviction for neglect and a sentence of six months hard labour. She also spent time in several mental asylums.
Released from incarceration, she changed her approach; instead of letting the babies die of starvation, she turned to strangling them. She escaped detection through frequent changes of her name and location. In 1896, she was in Reading, west of London, and her terrible history was about to catch up with her.
On March 30, a bargeman found a package in the River Thames. It contained a baby girl identified as Helena Fry. Clever detective work found an address on the paper in which the infant was wrapped; it was the home where Amelia Dyer lived. She was arrested and her home was found to contain piles of baby clothing, but no babies. A search turned up six more babies in the River Thames.
Confronted with the overwhelming evidence of her guilt, Dyer entered a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea. She made a big show of singing hymns and preaching while in prison, but she had used this tactic before when under suspicion, and the jury was not fooled. It took less than five minutes to return a verdict of guilty.
As she waited in her cell for the executioner's knock on the door, she wrote out her confession, filling five exercise books with a catalogue of her dreadful crimes. When asked on the gallows if she had any final words, she said: “I have nothing to say.” With that, at precisely 9 a.m. on June 10, 1896, one of the world's most prolific serial killers dropped into oblivion.
- In the 1840s, the infant mortality rate in Britain was about 150 per 1,000. Rapid urbanization causing pollution and poor sanitation saw that number shoot up over the next few decades. As a result, it was easy for corrupt baby farmers to pass off the deaths of children in their care as part of the overall death rates.
- In June 1914, Chicago’s The Day Book ran an article under the headline “Rich Fathers of Nameless Kids Sought in Baby Farm Probe.” The newspaper reported: “It is believed that some of these farms are working in league with shady doctors who attend unmarried mothers. It is known that the keepers of these farms shake down mothers, and then if trouble comes up threaten exposure and the girls are forced to keep silent.”
- In 1907, a report exposed a baby farm in Perth, Australia. Of the 87 children a Mrs. Mitchell had been paid to look after, none survived. A court decided she had willfully neglected the infants, although public opinion was that she was a serial killer.
- “ ‘Baby Farming’ – a Tragedy of Victorian Times.” Capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.
- “Margaret Waters.” Juan Ignacio Blanco, Murderpedia, undated.
- “The Tale of Margaret Waters, Brixton’s Notorious 1870 Baby Farmer, as Reported in the Spectator’s Archives.” Stevie, Brixton History, June 10, 2013.
- “Baby Farmers and Angelmakers: Childcare in 19th Century England.” The Ultimate History Project, undated.
- “Rhoda Willis – The Last Baby Farmer to Hang.” Capitalpunishmentuk.org, undated.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor
Richard Green from New Mexico on November 03, 2018:
Chilling! I didn't know about baby farming until today.
Liz Westwood from UK on November 03, 2018:
This is a very sad tale, made sadder by its truth.