Today, I’m thrilled to be hosting a guest post from Angela Buckley, a crime history author, who is researching detective history for a PhD at Oxford Brookes University. This post explores the daily lives of detectives in Liverpool Borough Police in the Victorian era.

Since the emergence of Sherlock Holmes in the 1880s, there has been an ongoing fascination with detective adventures. The iconic consulting detective often collaborated with his colleagues at Scotland Yard, about whom he was less than complimentary, but by the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his legendary stories, there were efficient crime-busting police detectives in other English cities outside the capital, including Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham.

Liverpool Borough Police, one of the earliest ‘new’ police forces, was established in 1836. There were two divisions: North and South, covering the docks and the city streets which, in Victorian times, were teeming with inebriated sailors, sex-workers, notorious thieves and violent gangsters. From the very beginning of the Liverpool force’s history, plain clothes police officers were deployed, especially for investigating burglaries in the suburbs.

George’s Dock, Liverpool, in 1897 (Wikimedia Commons)

The first documented reference to a formal detective department was in 1845, when a detective superintendent was appointed to oversee the management of the team and its dedicated office at the police headquarters. (This is contemporaneous with the creation of Scotland Yard, at the Metropolitan Police.) By this time, there were eleven Liverpool police detectives investigating crime in the northern city. A major sea port, Liverpool had a high level of crime throughout the nineteenth century and was particularly infamous for its sex trade. In 1836, there were some 300 brothels, with 1,200 sex workers, who mixed with more than a thousand known male thieves throughout the city. More than 1,200 street children were also engaged in pilfering. Regular offences included brutal assaults, rioting and sectarian clashes, robberies from warehouses, shops and private residences, and disorderly behaviour, especially at night. The police had their work cut out.

Head Constable’s Special Report Book, Liverpool Archives (© A Buckley)

From the very beginning, the detective officers were required to keep a daily record of their investigations. This was acknowledged in the first Inspectors of Constabulary report in 1857, in which it was noted that individual detective officers in Liverpool kept ‘a journal of his duties’. In fact the detective superintendent had implemented a strict daily régime. When information about felonies was received into the detective office, via the uniformed constables, the chief constable, or members of the public, the details were entered into a series of thirteen different log books, each relating to specific crimes, such as the Borough Robbery Book. The superintendent then selected a detective officer with the relevant experience to each case. The detectives started work at 9 a.m., when they received their instructions for the day. They usually began by interviewing the informant and following any leads. Individual officers were out on assignments all day and when they returned to the office in the evening, they entered their findings back into the relevant log book. If they moved outside the force’s jurisdiction, they had to remain in contact whilst they were away by telegraph.

In addition to tackling crime, Liverpool detective officers were involved in a wide range of duties, including conducting prosecutions in court, racecourse surveillance, protecting warehouses, and checking ships moored at the docks. They supervised royal visits, travelled overseas to apprehend suspects and undertook covert missions to track Irish nationalists. Detective Inspector William Cozens, one of the longest-serving and most experienced members of the detective team, summed up his duties: ‘They consist of investigating important cases, such as burglary, robbery on the high seas, cotton robberies, murders, and suspected cases of arson.’ During the Victorian period, high profile crime investigations included the prosecution of Florence Maybrick for murdering her husband, in 1887, which was followed with great interest throughout the nation.

The courtroom at St George’s Hall, Liverpool ( © A Buckley)

Charles Dickens, a stalwart supporter of the police, who had famously interviewed Scotland Yard officers in 1850, visited Liverpool a decade later. After signing up as a special constable, the intrepid writer accompanied Superintendent Benjamin Ride on his nightly patrol into one of the most dangerous quarters of the city’s criminal underworld. When he recounted his experiences in ‘The Uncommercial Traveller’, he praised the Liverpool police force as ‘an admirable force…it is composed, without favour, of the best men that can be picked, it is directed by an unusual intelligence’.

Charles Dickens’ plaque, Liverpool (© A Buckley)

A big thank you to Angela for sharing her research and insight into the intrepid detectives of Liverpool. You can find out more about her sleuthing work at


Like most things in Victorian society, the type of education children received depended very much upon the social class they belonged to. While sons of the wealthy were educated at public schools, their daughters were taught at home for a limited period by a governess. For parents who could afford it, there were ‘dame’ schools usually run by a mistress in her own home who took in a number of children. This service was similar to child-minding and children attending often learned very little, in many cases being left to their own devices.

Working-class children probably learned more at Sunday schools which were first introduced in the 1780s. For children who worked during the week, these schools provided the only education they received in literacy, numeracy and instruction in the Bible. 

There were also ‘ragged’ schools providing free education specifically for the poorest children and orphans. First introduced in 1818, these developed quickly after the Ragged School Union was formed in 1844. From 1833, children working in factories were to be provided with two hours of schooling each day, although this was not always adhered to. This was extended to three hours a day from 1844.

The Lambeth Ragged School, 1846 (Source: Library of Congress)

Education was also provided in industrial schools for vulnerable children, who were at risk of becoming criminal offenders, especially after 1857. In addition, child inmates in workhouses were given schooling to help them escape from the cycle of poverty.

Before the landmark Elementary Education Act of 1870, most schools for ordinary children were provided by religious organisations. The largest was the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor set up by the Anglican Church in 1811. It founded National Schools to teach poor children reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. By 1860, it owned around 90 per cent of all public elementary schools in Britain, catering for about three-quarters of pupils.

Another organisation – the British and Foreign Schools Society – was founded in 1814 and established British Schools on behalf of the Non-conformist churches. There were also other denominations running schools such as the Catholic Poor School Committee and the Wesleyan Methodist Education Committee. All these schools were established through public subscriptions, not through rates. They usually charged a few pence per week per child.

From 1833, the government started providing supplementary grants for schools; it was a condition of receiving a grant that annual inspections were undertaken. The standard of education varied enormously across the country, partly because the National and British Schools used variations of the monitorial system. Under this method, there was just one teacher in charge with ‘monitors’ drawn from the older pupils, who taught groups of between eight and twenty younger ones. This meant that very few children were taught by a qualified teacher. Huge numbers were not being educated at all because there was an insufficient number of places, especially in the cities. In Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, less than a fifth of children were receiving an adequate education. It was impossible for the religious organisations to open sufficient schools because of the ever increasing population.

Waiting for Free Meals (from Living London, 1901)

In 1870, the Elementary Education Act was passed to address the issue. Under the new legislation, school places were to be provided for all children aged between five and 12 in a school run by a qualified headteacher. To achieve this, the voluntary religious organisations were given six months to increase their provision. After that time, in districts where they were unable or unwilling to fill the gaps, ‘School Boards’ made up of elected members were set up. They had the power to build and control board schools in their district which were to be non-sectarian and paid for by rates.

Education provided in these schools was not free and the fees varied between one and four pence a week. However, school boards could waive fees for parents who were genuinely too poor to pay. For many parents, sending their child to school meant the loss of an income for the family, so attendance continued to be sporadic especially at certain times of the year such as harvest or the hop-picking season.

In the new board schools, the use of pupil-teachers was the preferred teaching method. Under this system, older boys and girls over the age of 13 were apprenticed as pupil-teachers to assist in class and after five years, they could become teachers themselves following further training.

What was it like for a child to attend a board school? The day usually ran from 9am to 12 noon, followed by a break for two hours when most children went home for a meal. The afternoon session started at 2pm and finished between 4 and 5pm, depending on the season. In addition to reading, writing, arithmetic and some religious instruction, other activities might include singing, physical training in the form of drill exercises or the ‘object lesson’, which was especially useful for teaching science. Classes were large and more than 100 children could be taught in one room.

Paper and ink were expensive so most work was done on slates. Daisy Cowper attended school in Liverpool in the 1890s. She recalled: “One horrid thing about those days was the use of slates…it was disgusting to see them being cleaned by spitting and rubbing with a slate-rag; if no slate-rag was to hand, the bare wrist would serve!” *

Afternoon Assembly (from Living London, 1901)

Between 1862 and 1897, children were subjected to the ‘payment by results’ system. This was brought in to raise standards and schools could lose part of their grants if insufficient children attained the expected grades in the three Rs. They also needed to show a satisfactory level of attendance. Schools were tested annually by a government inspector, which was stressful for both teachers and pupils.

Originally introduced under the Revised Code of Regulations in 1862 and revised again in 1872, there were six Standards of Education relating to reading, writing and arithmetic through which children were meant to progress. For example, in Standard III, pupils were expected to read a short paragraph from a more advanced reading book, write a sentence slowly dictated once by a few words at a time from the same book, and to carry out long division and compound rules relating to money.

Children could not, for instance, be promoted to Standard IV if they failed to pass the criteria for Standard III. Many children left school without having attained Standard VI, which is unsurprising given the problems associated with sporadic attendance. The Standards roughly corresponded to ages between seven and 12.

Charles Cooper attended Walton School in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1870s and 1880s:

“It was a cruel system…Children were not regarded as mentally deficient. The idea was that every child could do the work if he tried hard enough. And he was made to try by threat of punishment. For reading, the same books were used year after year until they were ready to fall to pieces…For writing, Copy Books were used and the correct holding of the pen was insisted upon…Blots and finger marks were punishable by cane…In arithmetic the addition and subtraction of simple figures came first and more difficult examples were gradually introduced…this type of work included boys and girls, but in the afternoons when the girls were sewing, the boys would work from cards.” *

‘Payment by results’ placed undue emphasis on the three Rs at the expense of everything else. It was watered down slightly from 1871 when grants could be awarded for passes in ‘specific’ subjects in higher Standards including history, geography and geometry. From 1875, these grants were extended to passes in ‘class’ subjects across the Standards such as history, geography, grammar and needlework for girls.

Charles Cooper’s school “consisted of one large room, with no partition or classrooms, in which upwards of a hundred boys and girls were taught in Standards 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 by the Head Master and two Pupil Teachers, in mixed classes…Opposite the school, across the road, was a laundry used for training poor and needy girls…A part of the laundry was used by the Infants. Here the Infants and Standard 1 were taught by a Mistress, assisted by a girl from the Orphanage.”

Discipline was harsh in Victorian schools and the cane was regularly used to punish even slight misdemeanours. Daisy Cowper remembered a headmistress who “would bring her beastly cane on the palms, one on each hand, with such a full-arm action and sickening thwack that I was terrified that the hand would drop off at the wrist, and lie there, cut off, on the floor! I could easily have been sick!” *

Playtime (from Living London, 1901)

The Elementary Education Act was particularly successful in London where between 1870 and 1902, over 400 new board schools were opened. However, nationally, by the end of the nineteenth century, more children still attended denominational schools than board schools. In 1895, there were 2.4 million at voluntary schools and 1.9 million at board schools.

Education was still not compulsory so sporadic attendance remained an issue. Nor was it free, so it was difficult for poor families to send their children to school. It was not until 1880 that education was made compulsory for children up to the age of 10; the school leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893 and to 12 in 1899. The ‘school penny’ was finally abolished in 1891, making education free for all who attended public elementary schools.

*Extracts from the memoirs of Daisy Cowper and Charles Cooper can be found in John Burnett’s Destiny Obscure (see the Books & Resources page).


Buying food today is a straightforward process. Products are made under strict hygiene standards, the ingredients are usually clearly labelled and the origin of the product is named. In Victorian England, it was far more hazardous. The problem was that nothing was as it seemed because almost every kind of food was adulterated in some way.

From bread, pickled fruits and vegetables through to sweets, cakes, cheese and butter – they were all adulterated. This meant that foods were being bulked up with other additives to increase the shopkeepers’ profit margins. Every time the Victorians went shopping, they were being sold adulterated food. Even worse, this could pose serious risks to their health.

Potatoes, ground bones, plaster of Paris, lime and pipe-clay were often added to bread, as was sulphate of copper and alum. Alum was used in the dyeing and tanning industry, and it increased the weight of bread and added whiteness. Although it wasn’t poisonous in itself, it caused severe indigestion and constipation.

‘The Great Lozenge Maker’ from Punch (1858

Even more deadly were the poisons that were routinely added to sweets and other confectionery to make them more colourful and attractive. Chromate of lead created a deep yellow but caused lead poisoning; the more times it was ingested, the more serious the results. Red sulphuret of mercury (vermilion) produced a bright orange-red hue but was known to be a dangerous poison, while green sweets were usually coloured with verdigris (copper acetate) which was a highly poisonous salt.

In 1858, the use of poisons as additives in sweets became headline news. In Bradford, twenty people died and more than 200 others became ill after eating sweets that had been accidentally laced with arsenic during the making process, instead of harmless ‘daft’ (usually plaster of Paris).

A year later, another less well-known poisoning scandal hit the headlines. I wrote briefly about the case of the poisonous Bath buns a few years ago for the British Newspaper Archive blog. But the story is worth re-telling in greater detail. In December 1859, six boys from a boarding school in Clifton, near Bristol bought some Bath buns from the shop of a confectioner named Farr. Within half an hour of eating them, they fell violently ill ‘with a horrible sickness and other symptoms of irritant poison’. The quick thinking of a doctor in using emetics to empty their stomachs meant that five of the boys soon recovered.

A confectioner’s shop in Spalding, Lincolnshire (circa 1907)

But for one of the boys, the poisoning almost proved fatal. He had been greedier than the others and had eaten three of the buns. He remained ‘writhing in agony for a number of hours and fell into a state of collapse’. Luckily, he eventually recovered. The schoolboys were not the only people affected by this batch of Bath buns. A publican called May also bought some for himself and his brother, and they ‘likewise suffered horrid tortures’ for nine hours. When he got better, May complained to the magistrates but as he had not been poisoned outright, there was no case to answer. Had he died, a manslaughter case might have been brought.

Preliminary investigations revealed that Farr regularly coloured the buns with chromate of lead without being aware of its dangers, and at first it was supposed that this time he had carelessly used too much. However, when the buns were analysed by Doctor Frederick Griffin of the Bristol School of Chemistry, it was discovered that the colouring matter was, in fact, yellow sulphide of arsenic in the proportion of six grains to each bun. It turned out that in this instance, the druggist had mistakenly supplied Farr with sulphide of arsenic, a much more deadly poison than the slower-acting chromate of lead. No action was taken against the confectioner or the druggist because the poisoning was accidental.

Doctor Griffin wrote to The Times, arguing that ‘many of the obscure chronic and dyspeptic complaints now so prevalent are due to the systematic adulteration of articles of food with unwholesome or slowly poisonous materials’. This was probably also the reason for the large numbers of adverts in Victorian newspapers offering indigestion remedies.

Dr Jenner’s Absorbent Powder for Indigestion Heartburn and Acidity (Credit: Science Museum, London)

In 1868, the Pharmacy Act was passed, after which only qualified pharmacists and druggists could sell poisons and dangerous drugs. Unfortunately, until 1875, there still remained very little control over the food and drink sold to the public. Although the first Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Food or Drink was passed in 1860, it had very little effect. In 1872, an amended Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs Act came into force, which included the mandatory appointment of public analysts. A second select committee was set up and its findings formed the basis of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875).

Under this legislation, inspectors had the power to sample food and drugs, and to test them for adulteration. There was a further amendment to the Act in 1879, followed by the Margarine Act (1887) and finally, the Food Adulteration Act (1899). From the late 1880s and early 1890s, there were an increasing number of prosecutions for food adulteration, as reported in the local and national newspapers. This was the beginning of the trading standards legislation we take for granted today.


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 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).


Back in 2006, when I did the research for my book Prison Life in Victorian England, I remember being struck with sadness and pity for the babies of female prisoners who were born in prison and incarcerated with their mothers. Women who gave birth in prison could keep their babies with them, providing they were breastfeeding, sometimes until the end of their sentences.

In the 1860s, when Henry Mayhew visited Brixton Prison, the chaplain explained the rules about infants in the prison: ‘If the child be born here it is to stay with the mother but if born in jail before the mother comes here, it is to be sent to the Union immediately she is ordered to be removed to this prison.  We never had a child older than four years, but at Millbank one little thing had been kept so long incarcerated, that on going out of the prison it called a horse a cat’.

‘A Baby’s Cot’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The first crèche for prison babies was at Holloway Castle prison where babies born in jail and those under three months old at the time of their mothers’ conviction were cared for. Under this system, a baby slept in a cot in its mother’s cell and was taken to the day-nursery at 8.30 a.m. The wardresses bathed and fed each baby before putting it to bed again. If the mother’s conduct had been satisfactory, she might be allowed to see her baby at lunchtime or to take it with her when exercising in the prison yard. In fine weather, after lunch the baby spent most of the day with a prison nurse in a special tent in the garden.

Concerns were raised about children in convict prison nurseries, especially those who were there for long periods. It was feared that the contaminating influence of the criminal mothers on their offspring would mean the children themselves would be tempted into a life of crime. By 1900, all babies had to leave the prison at nine months. After this age, if a criminal mother had no family to look after her baby, it was sent to the workhouse and became an inmate for the duration of the prison sentence.

How wonderful, then, to read of a more positive view of prison babies at the end of the 19th century. I recently discovered an article in Living London (1901) about Wormwood Scrubs Prison which argued that “in many cases the prison born are better off than the free born – more cared for, more delicately nurtured than those who have first seen the light and have been dragged up in the purlieus and dark dens of the town.”

‘Baby Parade’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London, 1901)

The journalist added:

“Prison mothers are generally a pattern to their sex. Discipline apart, and the stimulus it gives to good behaviour, there are no disturbing emotions within the walls, no incentives to neglect of offspring, no drink, no masterful men, no temptation to thieve or go astray; and thus their better feelings, their purer maternal instincts, have full play. So the prison baby has, for the most part, a good time. 

High officials, visitors, matron, warders, are all glad to pet and cosset it, there is plenty of wholesome food, it has toys to play with, fresh air and exercise in its mother’s arms, while its nursery, though no doubt a cell, is bright, well-ventilated, not ill-furnished with its comfortable cot, and is scrupulously clean. Moreover, when the prison mother is drawn elsewhere by the necessities of her daily toil, she knows that her baby will be well cared for in the prison nursery or creche.” 

‘In the Women’s Work Room’ from ‘In Wormwood Scrubs Prison’ (Living London , 1901)

If you ever get the chance, visit Beaumaris Gaol on Anglesey. In the prison, there is a nursery in which you can see a Victorian baby’s cradle. On one end of the cradle was a rope which hung down into the room below. This was the female prisoners’ workroom and they could rock their infants’ cradles from below the nursery without stopping their work. At Beaumaris, you can also explore all the corridors and cells, including the condemned cell and the punishment cell. There’s also the original treadwheel used to provide work for the prisoners – this is the only place I’ve ever seen a surviving one of these.


Today, I’m delighted to be hosting a guest post from Sue Wilkes. Her latest book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood, delves into the experiences of childhood at home, school, work and in institutions, especially during Victorian times.

Sue has very kindly written a post about the child shoe-blacks who were on every busy street in Victorian cities, eager to shine shoes for a fee.

When you’re visiting Victorian England, your shoes will get very mucky because of all the filth in the streets. If you need to cross the street, watch out for a ‘crossing-sweeper’ – a poor boy or girl who will sweep a clear path across the road for you for a penny or two. Road crossing sweepers earned a few extra pennies by holding gentlemen’s horses for them. Middle-class reformers were worried that street children like these were a menace to society.

John Leech cartoon for Punch (Bradbury & Evans, 1863). Sue Wilkes’ collection

But if your shoes need cleaning in a hurry, perhaps because you are on your way to dine with friends, a shoe-black will shine your shoes for a small fee. The shoe-black brigades, founded in 1851, were an offshoot of the ragged school movement. The brigades helped boys earn money as shoe-blacks so that they could save up enough funds to emigrate and begin a new life abroad. The boys earned up to 8s 6d per week. A proportion of each boy’s wages were paid into a savings account for him; he was given some pennies for pocket-money and a few pence of his earnings repaid the Shoe-Black Society for kitting him out.

Shoe-black boy. Illustrated London News, 24 May 1851. Sue Wilkes’ collection.

Thanks, Sue! So when you’re on your visit to Victorian England, look out for the shoe-blacks and child crossing-sweepers, and don’t forget to throw them a few coppers.
Sue’s book, Tracing Your Ancestors’ Childhood is out now. You can find out more about her work by visiting her website and her Jane Austen blog: You can also follow her on Twitter (@SueWilkesauthor).