Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post by the fabulous Angela Buckley, who specialises in writing about Victorian crime. Angela tells us the sad story of the infant victims of Amelia Dyer, the notorious baby farmer; many of their mothers were domestic servants who had no choice but to entrust their children to the care of women like Dyer.
Victorian Childcare: Baby Farming
Life was particularly harsh for single mothers in the nineteenth century. Young women who fell pregnant outside wedlock lost their homes and jobs, and were shunned by society. Domestic servants were amongst the most vulnerable and their plight was brought to light by a series of dreadful discoveries in the river Thames at Caversham, in the spring of 1896.
On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast upriver and, as he approached Caversham Weir near Reading, he spotted a brown paper parcel in the water. He and his mate hooked the package to take a closer look. Once on the towpath, they cut through layers of newspaper and flannel to expose a tiny human foot and part of a leg. When the police opened the parcel fully at the mortuary, they found the body of a baby girl, aged between six months and a year. She had been strangled by a piece of white tape tied around her neck and knotted under her ear. A faint name and address on the sodden parcel led the officers to Amelia Dyer, a local baby farmer. A letter found at her home suggested that the child recovered from the river might have been Helena Fry, daughter of Mary Fry, a domestic servant.
|Amelia Dyer (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)|
Victorian servants who had illegitimate children were usually dismissed from their post, despite the fact that they may have been sexually exploited by a member of their employer’s family. Encumbered with an infant, they may not have been able to return home and they would not have found another position. Their choices were limited – there was no state assistance and they often ended up in the workhouse, where they were separated from their child. The only other viable option, if they could afford it, was to place the child with a baby farmer.
Baby farmers, who were usually women, advertised in the local newspapers for children to adopt for a fee, either a weekly payment of about five shillings, or a one-off premium of around £10, which was a large proportion of a domestic servant’s annual wage. Transactions were organised by letter, and once the mother was satisfied that her baby would be taken care of, she handed over the child to the baby farmer, with the money, and often never saw them again.
|Newspaper advertisements placed by baby farmers (With thanks to Thames Valley Police Museum)|
The reality for farmed-out children was bleak. Although there were some reputable baby farmers, many of them were unscrupulous practitioners who neglected the infants in their charge, drugging them with opiates, such as Godfrey’s Cordial, and starving them to death. The high infant mortality rate at the time masked the deaths of these poor mites. The practice was unregulated and completely legal.
When the body of baby Helena Fry was found in the Thames in 1896, the police investigated Amelia Dyer, who had been running her baby farming business for some 30 years. Many of the parents who had entrusted their children to her were in domestic service. The bodies of at least six children were discovered in the Thames at Caversham Weir, one of whom was Frances Jesse Goulding, illegitimate daughter of Elizabeth Goulding, who worked as a servant in a public house in Gloucester. The baby’s father was a married man and so Elizabeth made the heartbreaking decision to give her child up for adoption. When she saw an advertisement in the paper, she arranged with Amelia Dyer’s daughter, Mary Ann Palmer, to have baby Frances adopted. She met Palmer on Gloucester station and paid her £10 to take the child, who was later identified by a lock of her hair, after her body was found in the river.
On 22 May 1896, Amelia Dyer was convicted of the wilful murder of baby Doris Marmon, whose body was found in the Thames in a carpet bag together with another child, Harry Simmons. Three weeks later Dyer went to the gallows. Following her execution, legislation was introduced to protect children like Frances Jesse Goulding and the other infants who perished at the hands of the notorious Victorian baby farmer.
A big thank you to Angela for writing such a fascinating, yet poignant post. Please get in touch if baby farming has cropped up in your family tree or if you have a story to tell about your Victorian servant ancestors.
Angela writes about Victorian crime and you can find out more about her work on her website www.angelabuckleywriter.com or on her Facebook page, Victorian Supersleuth
Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets. Angela is also the author of The Real Sherlock Holmes (Pen and Sword).