As students we are taught about the Victorian age extensively and our knowledge is then extended even more at university, if we decide to continue exploring it. I, however, did not want to believe that the poverty and the strict social rules, described in all Victorian novels, might actually lead to such dismal conditions. Unable to imagine what Victorians were really capable of, I went on to read Benjamin Waugh’s tract called “Baby-farming”, published in 1890, and rediscovered the whole new “brisk business, known by the mild name of “Baby-Farm” (Waugh 3).
A “memento mori” of a baby, this aspect of the Victorian tradition when people took pictures of their deceased loved-ones.
Reading the ghastly description of a baby-farm he investigated, I was instantly reminded of Elizabeth Gaskell’s account of the Victorians and their poverty in Mary Barton:
Crouching and sprawling on the floor, in their own excrement were two of them. Two were tied in rickety chairs, one lay in rotten bassinet. The stench of the room was so abominable that a grown man vomited on opening the door of it. […] In bitter March, there was no fire. Two children had a band of flannel round the loins; one had a small shawl on; the rest had only thin, filthy, cotton frocks. All were yellow, fevered skin and bone. None of them cried, they were too weak.” (Waugh 4)
[T]he smell was so foetid as almost to knock the two men down. Quickly recovering themselves, as those inured to such things do, they began to penetrate the thick darkness of the place, and to see three or four little children rolling on the damp, nay wet brick floor, through which the stagnant, filthy moisture of the street oozed up.” (Gaskell 60)
|Another "memento mori"|
The Reverend Benjamin Waugh was the Director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) when his tract was published in an attempt to direct the attention towards this way of money-profiting, which degrades babies to mere sheep for slaughter (Waugh 12). In general, baby-farming referred to a certain way in which a private individual, usually a middle-aged woman, acquired infants to nurse and board for a fee, either a monthly or weekly charge, or just a one-time fee. Thus acquired, infants were left neglected, starving and cold, which led the quiet way to their untimely death. In some cases the farmers simply “disposed” of the child without any mercy. Descriptions such as the one in Waugh’s tract were common for baby-farmers. Their goal was to use as little money as they could from the fee they required from the mothers, to support the little luckless burden entrusted on them and the rest of it was saved for the farmers’ own needs. Shamelessly, they were happy to satisfy their alcoholic urges, rather than help a poor innocent soul not leave this world so quickly. Appalled by what he discovered as reality, James Greenwood asks after investigating a number of baby-farming cases: “And is there no remedy for this? Would it not be possible, at least, to issue licences to baby-keepers as they are at present issued to cow-keepers?” (Greenwood 38).
Margaret Waters’ baby-farm, pictured in the magazine The Illustrated Police News
Disposing of a child
The potential victims of the farmers were found through advertisements for “adoption” in newspapers, where the farmers presented themselves as well-off childless wives, or mothers with recently deceased children, but in all cases they claimed to own a comfortable cottage for the infant’s needs. The advertisements were shaped and written in such a way that was supposed to satisfy the possible requirements of any unfortunate young mother. This certainly seemed like a fairy tale solution to all Victorian young women with illegitimate babies, who were the main respondents to the advertisements. Trapped in a horrible encumbrance of that kind, a young working-class girl, who earns her bread in a factory and has no chance of being with the infant’s father, has almost no other choice. Using the illegitimate situations to their benefit, the baby-farmers arranged secret meetings with the young mothers, most of the times sending mere procurers, who looked trustworthy enough to take the baby along with the negotiated money. The procurers were always convincing enough of their status. They looked like loving mothers-to-be and cunningly showed great knowledge of how to raise a baby, making the illegitimate mothers believe they were not just mere messengers. The encounters were never in the alleged house of the baby-farmers, they were organised most of the times in places such as railway stations, because both parties required secrecy and a crowded place and no real address reaffirmed that need (Greenwood 21-25). Thus, infanticide on a large-scale was being done by “experienced masters in the craft”, who possessed “the quiet canniness of the devil” during the Victorian era (Waugh 11).
An advertisement for “adoption”, possibly by a baby-farmer
Imagining such a place and its beyond cruel hosts made me think of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist instantly. Dickens uses the actual term “baby-farming” and his description of it is very similar to Waugh’s tract, even though it was published 52 years before the tract:
…Oliver should be “farmed”, or, in other words, that he should be despatched to a branch-workhouse some three miles off, where twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female, who received the culprits at and for the consideration of sevenpence-halfpenny per small head per week. (Dickens 4)…at the very moment when a child had contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food, it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world… (Dickens 4)
|Oliver Twist asking for a second helping|
Among the most infamous infant murderesses was Margaret Waters. She was the first woman in England to be sentenced to death for baby-farming and was hanged on 11th October 1870 at the Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Waters was charged with five wilful infant murders, neglect and conspiracy in Brixton, London at the Old Bailey (the Central Criminal Court of England and Wales) and was convicted of the murder of a baby called John Walter Cowen. Sarah Ellis, her sister, was also convicted in the same case and sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment and hard labour. The Times published the news on 12th October 1870 (the whole article) (Capital Punishment U.K.).
|The execution of Margaret Waters on 11th October 1870|
Margaret Waters’ execution on The Manchester Guardian 12.10.1870
The Victorian weekly magazine The Illustrated Police News, pictures baby-farming at Brixton, where Margaret Waters was and the found dead corpses of babies, allegedly the deeds of baby-farmers.
Another notorious baby killer was Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, also known as ‘the Reading Baby-farmer’. She was executed on 10th June 1896 at Newgate prison for the murder of four-month-old baby Doris Marmon. Amelia Dyer was probably one of the most prolific murderesses of her time. Before her arrest in April 1896, she had been an on-going farmer for 15-20 years. Her “way of business” was to strangle the infants with white tape the minute she brought them into the house and then she abandoned the corpses in the Thames, in order to hide the evidence. Mrs. Dyer’s unveiling started through one of her aliases, Mrs. Thomas, when the corpse of 15-month-old Helena Fry was found in the river, wrapped in brown paper with Mrs. Thomas’ address. Meanwhile, the mother Evelina Marmon had given her illegitimate baby Doris Marmon up for adoption, to the Reading Baby-farmer. Finally, after a police undercover operation, Amelia Dyer was exposed and sentenced to death. She acknowledged her sins, filling five notebooks with her confessions and tried twice to commit suicide whilst in prison. It is believed that she might have killed as many as 400 babies (Capital Punishment U.K.).
|Amelia Elizabeth Dyer|
“The Jews, or Mohammedans (I forget which), believe that there is one little bone of our body, - one vertebrae, if I remember rightly, - which will never decay and turn to dust […] this is the Seed of the Soul. The most depraved have also their Seed of the Holiness that shall one day overcome their evil.” (Gaskell 91)
This quote makes me wonder, whether this “Seed of the Soul” existed in such people as Margaret Waters or Amelia Dyer. Hopefully.
Works Cited List:
Capital Punishment U.K. – The resource site for the history of death penalty in Britain – babyfarm accessed on 12.11.2013 14:45
Dickens C. Oliver Twist, Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1966. Print.
Gaskell E. Mary Barton, London: Everyman’s Library, 1994. Print.
Greenwood J. The Seven Curses of London, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981. Print.
The Manchester Guardian (1828-1900); Margaret Waters’ article published originally on Oct 12, 1870; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian (1821-2003) and The Observer (1791-2003) pg. 8 accessed on 12.11.2013 16:13
The Times, Wednesday, Oct 12, 1870; pg. 9; Issue 26879; col E accessed on 12.11.2013 16:20
Waugh B. Baby-Farming, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, 1890. Print.