Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Baby Farming

"The darkest, most ghastly shame in the land" wrote the Reverend Benjamin Waugh, Honorary Director of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, in describing baby farming. It was, he went on to say, "a trade which has grown up, and is in full swing in the land—the undertaker for the unwanted baby's death."

 By 1890, when Waugh's tract, Baby Farming was published by the NSPCC, the practice had already gained notoriety as a result of a major investigation carried on by the British Medical Journal more than twenty years earlier, in 1868.  Nor was that the first time the practice had been brought to the attention of the public.  Not infrequently articles appeared in the newspapers of the day citing arrests for baby farming. Unfortunately cases frequently ended in either acquittal or little more than a slap on the wrist for the baby farmer. 

In Oliver Twist, the eponymous hero spends a portion of his youth in a baby farm.  Here, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Mann, he "contrived to exist upon the smallest possible portion of the weakest possible food." Dickens goes on to describe what happened to many of the children thus farmed out.
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, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.
. . .
Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing--though the latter accident was very scarce, anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurrence in the farm--the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their signatures to a remonstrance.  But these impertinences were speedily checked by the evidence of the surgeon, and the testimony of the beadle; the former of whom had always opened the body and found nothing inside (which was very probable indeed), and the latter of whom invariably swore whatever the parish wanted; which was very self-devotional.  Besides, the board made periodical pilgrimages to the farm, and always sent the beadle the day before, to say they were going.  The children were neat and clean to behold, when they went; and what more would the people have!
Children at the Waters' baby farm

Not all baby farms were as bad as the one Dickens described.  Some were well run and the children were properly cared for, but there were those that were far worse even than the establishment in which Oliver was raised. These were the final stopping place for unwanted children before they were hurried to an untimely death.

Who were the clientele of these nightmare establishments and how did they know to send their unwanted children there? Illegitimacy, particularly amongst the middle-classes of Victorian England, was considered a sin of the blackest sort.  It was, moreover, a sin largely laid upon women.  While there was little that could be done to mitigate a pregnancy, it could be kept as far away from the family and friends of the sinner as possible.  Then, when the baby was born, it could be farmed out and, hopefully, forgotten. It is likely that because of the costs involved in farming a baby out, baby farms were reliant for survival on clients capable of paying to have their unwanted offspring removed as far from the mother as possible. 

Amongst the lower and labouring classes, a baby's antecedents were considered of little importance and rather than pay to have a baby removed, if that was seen as an appropriate course of action, the infant could be dealt with by the parents.  There was, always, the swift flowing Thames as a last resort and final resting place.

For someone looking for a baby farm, the papers advertised them quite blatantly with only the most minimal attempt to "code" the notice.  James Greenwood, in The Seven Curses of London quotes from a number of advertisements for "Adoption." In The Times, there appear, over the Victorian period, numerous notices with headings such as "Child Wanted to Nurse," "Care of child wanted by married couple without children," "The care of a child wanted," etc. Most of these advise that the advertiser is "respectable" and can provide "references."  How many of these were baby-farmers hoping to make some money and how many were legitimate advertisements is difficult to determine.  Certainly, some were likely to be baby-farmers of the worst sort.

Among the most vicious in the trade was Margaret Waters, tried, convicted and sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in September of 1870.  Waters was believed to be responsible for the deaths of as many as nineteen infants. The Times summed up the business in an article published on 12 October 1870.
The wretched woman and her sister were proved to have systematically published advertisements offering to "adopt" children for a remuneration which no one in his senses could believe to be adequate,.  In other words, they offered to the parents of illegitimate children a means of getting rid of charges at once burdensome and shameful to them.
A sergeant of police painted a picture of what he found at the baby farm.  Here  "some half-dozen little infants lay together on a sofa, filthy, starving, and stupefied by  laudanum."

 In the Coroner's court, a fourteen-year old housemaid testified that children at the house had been "taken away at night and not brought back."  She had been told that the children were being taken home.

Disposing of a child

When a post-mortem examination was conducted on one child "the general appearance of the body showed extreme emaciation."  When the Coroner further examined Dr George Puckle who had conducted the post-mortem, the doctor referred to "the extreme wasting and debility to which the child had been subjected," a subject upon which he further expanded at the trial itself.

The charge which Margaret Waters faced in her trial before the Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, was the "wilful murder of John Walter Cowen."  John was the illegitimate child of sixteen years old Janet Tassie Cowen.  Janet's father, who seems to have been genuinely concerned with finding a decent home for the child, " answered an advertisement in Lloyd's Newspaper.  The notice to which he responded read:
Adoption.—A respectable couple desire the entire charge of a child to bring up as their own. They are in a position to offer every comfort. Premium required, 4l. Letter only. Mrs. Willis, P.O., Southampton Street, Camberwell.
That such notices where the rule, rather than the exception, was quickly established when Thomas Bassett, a clerk in the advertising department of Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper, during his testimony, produced twenty-seven advertisements from the accused.  When he was asked whether he had received other advertisements of a similar kind, he replied, "Oh yes, for years, from other persons, who professed to take the care of very young children; from a great many different persons."

According to The Times, Waters sold the children "for a fortnight's expenses paid in advance, and would then ... hear no more of them," or she would take them "into the street, placing them in the hands of children and then running away and leaving them to their fate."

In the end, Margaret Waters was found guilty and sentenced to death.  On Tuesday, October 11th, 1870, at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, she became the first woman in England to hang for baby farming.

The Hanging of Margaret Waters
The pictures above are all from the rather sensational paper, The Illustrated Police News.  To see the  transcript of the case, click here. For The Times report of the execution, click here.


Hels said...

I have been thinking a lot about orphanages in the Netherlands, as far back as the 17th century. There seemed to have been a commitment between the Council in each city and the Church to provide a basic home and education for every child, even if the parents were impoverished, dead or not married. I suppose conditions were sparse but there really was a commitment to Christian dignity for each child.

What went so badly wrong in Britain?

Lesley said...

I think with the relentless advance of industrialisation, the social infrastructure (council/church)of large industrialised areas was non-existent until the end of the 19th century. New parishes were having to be created to cope with the numbers of workers. This was the downside of Victorian (city) expansion and wasn't the norm in the more traditional rural areas of Britain.

AltoBerto said...

Markets happened, Hels, Markets.

Tom Hughes said...

These "nurses" expected to get paid. In 1869, a Victorian clergyman stopped the regular payments being made for the "care" of his young wife's (allegedly) illegitimate children. The formidable Mrs. Donne went to court and a most sensational trial resulted. See "Two Bastards under his Roof" at