Friday, 14 November 2014

The Angel Maker

On the bitterly cold morning of 30th March 1896 Charles Humphreys, a local bargeman, was making his way down the River Thames at Reading when he came across a partly submerged package. He dragged the package out of the water, hopeful that the contents would be of some value. What Charles didn’t expect to discover upon opening the package, was the tiny foot of a child.
Victorian England wasn’t kind to single mothers, as well as bringing shame on themselves and their families, they were left unemployable, facing immense poverty, and the pitfalls of prostitution. With the workhouse doors closed to these immoral women, the alternatives were abandonment or to put their children in the care of a ‘nurse’ or ‘baby farmer’.
Figure 1. Victim of baby farming, date unknown
Baby farming was an unscrupulous trade in Victorian England, and very profitable. Children would be taken in by so called nurses and fostered for a weekly fee; alternatively a permanent adoption could be arranged for a high one off premium. The business of baby farming represented the systematic abuse of unwanted children in the Victorian era. Once in the care of their ‘nurses’ the babies would suffer incomprehensible neglect. Frequently denied food and drugged to hush their cries, they would eventually die; alternatively they would be murdered outright by their new carers. The Infant Life Protection Act passed in 1872 called for the registration of all nurses caring for more than one child under the age of 12 months; however, with little regulation and policing of this law the practice of baby farming continued to be abused.

Figure 2. Amelia  Elizabeth Dyer, Reading Police Station, 1896
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, later dubbed The Angel Maker for her crimes, was perhaps one of the most prolific baby farmers of her day, and remains one of history’s most prolific serial killers. The number of babies lost at the hands of Dyer remains officially unknown, but is thought to run into the hundreds. The twice married mother of three was of a modest background. She was the daughter of a master shoe maker, educated until the age of fourteen, apprenticed as a corset maker and later trained as a nurse at the Bristol Royal Infirmary. Unable to work following the birth of her first child Ellen, Dyer turned to the baby farming trade to make her living. The high premiums became as addictive to Dyer as the opium she kept in her apron pocket.  

Figure 3. Advertisment thought to be placed by Amilia Dyer
Each child that entered into Dyers care represented a profit, a profit that could only be incurred by keeping costs to a minimum. The babies therefore were underfed, unwashed and poorly clothed. To mask their infant cries Dyer would drug them ensuring that they remained subdued. Any clothes provided by birth mothers were pawned for a price. In order to stay undetected Dyer operated under a number of pseudonyms, Harding, Thomas and Smith but to name a few. Dyer also changed her address frequently, rarely residing at one address for much more than three months. Under the forenamed pseudonyms, Dyer would place advertisements in newspapers for the adoption of children and await her prey. 

Dyer’s story is a harsh reflection of the Victorian era and one that is in stark contrast to that of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Marner, a linen weaver and near recluse, has only his earnings to worship. When these are stolen from him he is left in a state of emptiness; that is until, one winter’s eve a small infant is guided to his hearth by the light from his cottage. Marner names the infant Eppie. Eppie’s mother Molly has married the eldest son of Squire Cass. The marriage has remained a secret, and since she has succumbed to the ‘…demon opium…’ (Eliot, 93) Godfrey, her husband, has told her he would ‘…sooner die than acknowledge her as his wife’ (Eliot, 92). Molly therefore finds herself in a similar position to the women upon whom Dyer would have preyed. Neglected and poor, with a small child to raise, she sets off one New Years Eve to claim her husband, and the life she considers rightfully hers. Molly’s ‘…comfort…’ (Eliot, 93) Opium prevents her from completing the journey and she dies in the snow a short walk from Marner’s cottage.   Her young infant subsequently presents herself on Marner’s hearth. Molly’s body is soon discovered, but Godfrey remains silent about who she is, thus abandoning his child also. Marner touched by the child resolves to take her as his own. 

Figure 4. Silas Marner and Eppie
Eliot’s novel is unusual in that it places a male in the role of nurturer raising Eppie with ‘…tender and peculiar love…’ (Eliot, 127) thus challenging the male stereotype. Equally Dyer challenges the female stereotype in her lack of maternal instinct towards the babies in her care. There are other parallels that run here between fact and fiction; Eliot insinuates that Eppie’s mother was a barmaid ‘…no higher memories that those of a bar-maid’s paradise…’ (93). This conveys to the reader the social divide between Godfrey and Molly, and the reason for his secrecy. In Alison Rattle and Alison Vale’s book The Woman Who Murdered Babies For Money The Story Of Amelia Dyer it is stated that ‘…bar work was not a respectable occupation…’ (164) and that ‘Unwanted pregnancies were an occupational hazard…’ (166) for barmaids. These statements were made in relation to Evelina Marmon, who later identified her daughter as one of Dyer’s victims. That Molly was identified by Eliot as a barmaid may therefore have made her story more realistic to the reader. A further parallel that runs between the two narratives is the outcome for Eppie and some of Dyers survivors. Through the death of her Mother, Eppie found in Marner a loving and stable home. A twist of fate equal to that of Eppie’s, potentially saved four of the children in Dyer’s care in 1894. Dyer had been committed for the third and final time to an Asylum leaving her daughter Polly with four of her farmed children, Annie, Alfred, Lilly and an unnamed baby girl. In her Mothers absence Polly placed all four children into the workhouse where records show that the baby girl at least was immigrated to Canada where she was later said to be doing well (Rattle & Vale, 127). Though the remaining three go untraced we can be certain that their fate did not lie at the hands of Dyer. This parallel, more poignant in Eliot’s novel, reflects a light in the darkness for those abandoned or displaced.  

Charles Humphrey’s discovery in March 1896 of a baby wrapped in a parcel and partly submerged in The River Thames, Reading, was to set into motion a series of events that would finally see Amelia Dyer arrested and convicted. Numerous pseudonyms, addresses, suicide attempts and committals had assisted Dyer in evading prosecution for her habitual brutality, but her address not completely washed
Figure 5. Newspaper article referring to Dyers leaked confession, 1896
away from the brown paper that enclosed the small body, would finally lead police directly to her door. Dyer eventually stood trial at the Old Bailey charged with the wilful murders of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons, both strangled and discarded in the river. Dyer made a full confession of her crimes which was sensationally leaked to the press
, as well as referring to her guilt in letters written to her daughter Polly. Though her sanity was questioned at her trial she was found to be legally sane and accountable for her actions. 
Figure 6. Police transcript of a letter between Dyer and Polly. Underlined are Dyer's confessions to murder, 1896

On 22nd May 1896 Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was sentenced to death by hanging. 

Figure 7. Newgate Gaol, 1896.
On 10th June 1896 Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hung at Newgate Gaol. 



Eliot, G. Silas Marner. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1994

Miller, D. “Britain's worst ever serial killer: The Victorian 'Angel Maker' who murdered 400 babies”. The Mail Online, 2013. 30 October 2014.

Rattle, A. and A. Vale, The Woman Who Murdered Babies For Money The Story Of Amelia Dyer. London: Carlton, 2011

Vale, A. “Amelia Dyer: the woman who murdered 300 babies” The Independent Online, 2013. 30 October 2014.

Visit to The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey TW9 4DU. Accessed files CRIM 1\44\10, PCOM 8\44, HO 144\267\A57858B, 4 November 2014


  1. What a fascinating topic, Claire! The sources you used were also very intriguing. Great work!

  2. Captivating title and opening. Such a sad topic, but incredibly interesting and eye-opening! Thanks for sharing.