"Baby Farming" – a
tragedy of Victorian times.
practice of baby farming grew up in late Victorian era when there was no
effective contraception and great social stigma attached to having a child out
of wedlock. Proper adoption agencies and social services didn't exist at this
time. Instead, a number of untrained women offered legal fostering and adoption
services to unmarried mothers who would hand over their baby plus, say 10 to 15
pounds in cash (quite a large sum of money then) to them in the hope that the
child would be re-homed. Most of the babies were in one way or another. It is
probable that some were sold to childless couples and others fostered/adopted
for a few pounds. Unmarried mothers were often desperate so they answered the
adverts placed in newspapers by seemingly reputable people. Getting rid of a
child in this way had obvious advantages to the mother - it was simple, quick
and legal with few questions asked. The mothers had few real alternatives.
Abortion was illegal and the back street abortions that were carried out were a
very high risk alternative, sometimes resulting in severe haemorrhaging or even
the death of the women or prosecution and imprisonment if she was found out.
Abandonment was similarly illegal and little sympathy was extended by the
courts to women who abandoned their children in those days. Murdering of
unwanted children by their mothers typically resulted in the death penalty in
Victorian Britain. Selina Wadge
was hanged by William Marwood on the 15th of August 1878 at Bodmin for the murder of her
illegitimate son, and Louisa Masset became the first
person to be executed in the 20th century for murdering her young son. (Click her for a full
description of her case).
been “re-homed,” a baby disappeared, the mother was often too frightened or
ashamed to tell the police so it was very easy for the unscrupulous baby
farmers to kill off unwanted or hard to foster (or sell?) babies. Sadly, a few
of the baby farmers found killing off the babies far easier than re-homing them
and these are the cases examined here. Murder yielded a quicker profit without
the need for caring for the child for some weeks or months, at their own
In an age of high infant mortality, deaths of babies and small children
attracted little attention and were actually quite common. Where a baby’s body
was found, it was often impossible to trace the mother as the authorities did not
have the advantage of DNA tests.
farmers were hanged in England
and one each in Scotland
over the 40 year period from 1870 - 1909. These were :
Waters (34) who was hanged by William Calcraft at Horsemonger Lane Goal in
Surrey on Wednesday, the 11th of October 1870 for the murder John Walter
Tooke (40) who was hanged by William Marwood at Exeter on Monday, the 11th of August, 1879. Annie
was executed for the murder of six month old Reginald Hyde.
King, (27), was hanged by James Berry at Calton prison, Edinburgh on Monday, the 11th of March, 1889
for the murder, by strangling, of Alexander Gunn, one of two children in
her care whom she murdered and buried in her cellar.
Dyer (57) was hanged by James Billington at Newgate prison on Wednesday, the 10th of June, 1896
for the murder of four month old Doris Marmon.
- Ada Chard-Williams (24) was hanged
at Newgate prison in London
by James Billington on Tuesday,
the 6th of March, 1900. She was the last woman to hang at
Walters (54) and Amelia Sach (29), the "Finchley Baby Farmers,"
became the first women to be hanged in London’s new women's prison at Holloway
on the 3rd of February
1903 by William Billington and Henry Pierrepoint.
Willis (44), also known as Leslie James, was hanged by Henry and Thomas
Pierrepoint at Cardiff
prison on Wednesday,
the 14th of August, 1907 for the murder of a one day old girl
child by the surname of Treasure.
Margaret Waters was charged
with five counts of wilful murder of children in the Brixton area of London, as well as neglect
and conspiracy. Sergeant Richard Relf
of the Metropolitan Police became the first person to specialise in
investigating baby farming murders. He examined the cases of 18 infant deaths
in the Brixton area, leading to the arrest of Margaret Walters. She was
tried and convicted of the murder of an infant named John Walter Cowen for
which she was sentenced to death. Her execution being carried out by William
Calcraft at Horsemonger Lane Goal (County of Surrey) on Wednesday, the 11th of
October, 1870. Her sister, Sarah Ellis, was
convicted in the same case for obtaining money under false pretences and
sentenced to 18 months in prison with hard labour.
Reginald Hyde was born on the 6th of October 1878 to a young woman from
Camborne in Cornwall
called Mary Hoskins, who moved to Ide near Exeter in Devon to conceal the pregnancy. She was persuaded by her
brother to give the child up to a “nurse” and made contact with Annie Tooke who
agreed to take Reginald on for £12, plus 5 shillings (25p) a week. Annie moved from Ide
to South Street Exeter in the Spring of 1879 and had difficulty coping with the
growing Reginald. The baby was not seen alive after the 9th of May but a
child’s torso was discovered on the 17th of May by a local miller. The head,
limbs and genitals were missing but were discovered nearby. This gruesome find made the papers and the
story was read by a butcher and a doctor from Ide who
knew Annie and the child. They visited
her and asked to see Reginald whom she was unable to produce - instead making
up a story about an unnamed person having taken him away a fortnight earlier.
The police initially suspected that Mary Hoskins had been responsible for the
death (presumably to save the five shillings a week) and took Annie to Camborne
to identify her. Mary was arrested and charged with the crime. Annie gave
Captain Bent, the Chief Constable of Exeter, a statement describing how the
child had been taken but he became suspicious of her testimony and arrested
her. While in Exeter prison she made a full confession to him, saying how she
had suffocated Reginald with a pillow and then cut him up with the fire wood
chopper on the coal bunker. She later withdrew
this confession. She was tried at Exeter
on the 21st and 22nd of July 1879 and the jury believed her confession,
supported by blood stains on items of her clothing and the coal bunker. She was
convicted and hanged on Monday, the 11th of August by William Marwood. There seems little doubt that she was guilty
and that the murder was typical of the “Baby farming” style of crime, however
there is no evidence to show that she was involved with any other children, unlike
the other women on this page.
King lived with her partner Michael Pearson at lodgings in Canonmills
and ran a small scale baby farming business.
One of the children that was in her care was an
infant boy called Alexander Gunn who initially appeared to be being well cared
for but suddenly disappeared. Attempts
to trace him were defeated by Jesse moving to the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh. Here the couple started looking after a
female baby who, like Alexander, suddenly disappeared. Although there was the
inevitable suspicion, it is probable that Jessie would have got away with it
had the body of a male baby not been found by some boys playing in
Stockbridge. The baby had been
Jessie was interviewed and during the questioning broke down and led the police
down to the cellar where they discovered the body of the female baby. Jessie was charged with both murders and
tried for Alexander’s killing at Edinburgh
in February, 1889. She told the court
that she had strangled Alexander in a state of "drunken melancholy"
and described how she had given the girl whisky to make her sleep, but claimed
she had "overdone it". She was inevitably found guilty of murder and
sentenced to death. She was sent back to Edinburgh's
Calton prison to await execution and whilst in the condemned cell, was examined
by a medical commission to see whether she was sane. They found her to be and she was duly hanged
by James Berry on Monday,
the 11th of March, 1889. Reporters were not allowed to witness the
actual execution but were allowed to view her body and talk to the prison
staff. She was described as "calm in the extreme" before her death
and Berry was
reported as having said that "in all his life he never saw a woman meet
her death so bravely". She was the last woman hanged in Edinburgh.
Amelia Dyer – The Reading
Baby - farmer. Click
here for a photo of her.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was perhaps the best known and most prolific murderous
Mrs Dyer was 56 years old when she moved from Bristol to Caversham in Reading in 1895 and began advertising for
babies to look after. On the 30th of March of 1896, a bargeman recovered the
corpse of 15-month old Helena Fry from the river Thames
at Reading. Helena's body was wrapped
in a brown paper parcel which had the name of a Mrs. Thomas and her address on
it – Piggott’s Road Lower Caversham. Mrs. Thomas was one of Mrs. Dyer's
aliases. It took the police some time to trace Mrs. Dyer as she had already
moved on, changing her address quite frequently and also using various aliases.
In the meantime, a Cheltenham
barmaid, 23 year old Evelina Marmon, had answered a
newspaper advert from a "Mrs Harding" seeking a child for adoption.
She met "Mrs Harding" and paid her a £10 fee to take her four
month old baby daughter Doris on the 31st of March 1896. She felt
comfortable with the arrangement as "Mrs Harding" appeared to be a
respectable and motherly person. The following day Mrs. Dyer “adopted” another
child, Harry Simmons. The police finally located Mrs. Dyer, who they
kept under surveillance for several days before mounting a “sting” operation
using a young woman to pose as a potential customer. She was arrested on April the 4th, 1896 when she
opened the door to the person she thought would be this customer only to find
two policemen standing there. The two tiny bodies of Doris and Harry were found
in the Thames on April the 10th, 1896, both wrapped in a carpet
bag and both white tapes round their necks. In all, the corpses of seven
babies, all of whom had been strangled, were recovered from the Thames and each one had the same white tape around their
neck. She soon confessed saying, "You’ll know all mine by the tape around
their necks.". She made two attempts to commit
suicide in Reading police station. She came to trial before Mr. Justice Hawkins
at the Old Bailey on the 21st and 22nd of May 1896 charged with Doris' murder in the first instance, so that if she was
acquitted, she could be tried for another. This was standard practice until
recently in cases of multiple murder. Miss Marmon identified Mrs Dyer in court as "Mrs Harding". The
defence tried to prove insanity but failed to convince the jury who took just 5
minutes to find her guilty. Although there was strong evidence of her dubious
sanity, her crimes were also appalling and the jury seemed to give far more
weight to that aspect. Mr. Justice Hawkins sentenced her to death. During her
three weeks in the condemned cell, she filled five exercise books with her
"last true and only confession." In a compassionate move the
authorities removed her from Newgate for a few hours so that she would not have
to hear the hanging of Milsom, Fowler and Seaman the
day before her own execution. The chaplain visited her on the evening of the 9th
and asked her if she had anything to confess - she offered him her exercise
books saying "isn't this enough?" She was hanged the following
morning (10th of June 1896) by James Billington, becoming at 57, the oldest
woman to be executed since 1843. She was given a drop of five feet as she
weighed some 15 stones. Her ghost was
said to haunt Newgate prison. No one will ever know the exact number of her
victims but at the time of her arrest, she had been carrying on her trade for
15 to 20 years. She may have murdered as
many as 400 babies in all.
Ada Chard-Williams. Click here for a photo of her.
Ada Chard-Williams, aged 24, was convicted of battering
and strangling to death 21 month old Selina Ellen
Jones at Grove Road,
Barnes in London
on or about Saturday, the
23rd of September 1899. Florence Jones, a young unmarried mother,
had read an advert in the local paper which offered to find adoptive homes for
unwanted children. She answered the advert and duly met “Mrs. Hewetson” (Chard-Williams) at Charing
Cross railway station on the 31st of August 1899. She agreed to pay her £5 to
take on Selina but could only give her £3 on the day.
Being an honest woman, she went back later with the balance and found that
“Mrs. Hewetson” and Selina
had vanished. Florence reported the matter to the police. The police soon
discovered that “Mrs. Hewetson” was really Ada Chard
Williams. However, they had no body with which to prove there had been a
murder, at least not until little Selina's corpse was
washed up on the bank of the Thames at
Battersea a on September the 27th. They remained
unable to trace Chard-Williams as she moved frequently but were surprised she
took pre-emptive action and wrote them a letter denying the killing (which she
had read about) but in effect, admitting she was a baby farmer who bought and
sold babies for profit. In the letter, she claimed that she had sold Selina on to a Mrs. Smith in Croydon.
Like Amelia Dyer, Chard-Williams had her
own "signature" way of tying up bodies she wished to dispose of using
a knot called a Fisherman’s bend, which was a crucial piece of evidence at her
trial at the Old Bailey on the 16th and 17th of February 1900 before Mr.
Justice Ridley. She was hanged by James Billington in the execution shed in the
yard of Newgate prison on Tuesday, the 6th March 1900, the last woman to be
executed there. She was suspected of killing other children although no further
allegations were proceeded with. Her
husband, William, who had helped with the business was
Walters and Amelia Sach, the “Finchley Baby Farmers”.
Annie Walters and Amelia Sach became the first women to be hanged in the new
women's prison at Holloway on the
3rd of February 1903 by William Billington and Henry Pierrepoint. Previously,
female executions in London had been carried out at Newgate prison.
Twenty nine year old Amelia Sach ran a "nursing home" which offered a
haven for unmarried mothers to have their babies in and which, for a fee,
claimed it would care for the infant afterwards. Sach told her clients that she
could arrange for foster parents for the babies for an additional fee. Once the
mother had left the baby with Sach, she would pass it over to 54 year old Annie
Walters who would murder it, either with a dose of Chlorodyne (a morphine based
drug that causes asphyxia in babies or by suffocation if the Chlorodyne didn’t
work. The baby’s body would then be
disposed of in the Thames or by burying it on a rubbish dump. Walters was
neither literate or very bright and in 1902 decided take one of the babies
home. She lived in rented accommodation and her landlord was a police officer.
She told him that she was looking after the little girl while her parents were
on holiday and his wife helped her change the baby's nappy. The policeman's
wife noted that the little girl was actually a boy. A few days later, Mrs
Walters told the couple that the child had died in its sleep and she seemed
genuinely upset about his death.
A few months later she did the same thing again and this time her landlord
became suspicious when this second child died. She was duly arrested and
charged with the murder of the child, a 3 month old boy by the name of Galley.
Further bodies were discovered from the information Walters gave the police and
Amelia Sach was also now implicated in these murders. The police had enough
evidence to charge them both with murder. Many items of baby's clothing were
found by the police when they searched Sach's home and they may have murdered
as many as 20 children.
They were tried at the Old Bailey on the 15th and 16th of January 1903, before
Mr. Justice Darling. It took the jury 40 minutes to find them both guilty. They
were taken back to Holloway and were hanged there by William Billington
assisted by John Billington and Henry Pierrepoint on Tuesday, the 3rd of
February in the newley constructed execution shed at the end of “B” Wing. On
the day of her execution, Amelia Sach was in a state of virtual collapse in the
condemned cell. Pierrepoint recorded in his diary the following, "These
two women were baby farmers of the worst kind and they were both repulsive in
type. One was two pounds less than the other (in weight) and there was a
difference of two inches in the drop which we allowed. One (Sachs) had a long
thin neck and the other (Walters) a short neck, points which I was bound to
observe in the arrangement of the rope. Amelia Sach had to be almost carried to
the scaffold while Annie Walters stayed quite calm and is said to have called
out “Goodbye Sach” as she was hooded on the trapdoors. This was to be the last
double female hanging in Britain.
Willis, also known as Leslie James, was originally from Sunderland but had gone
to live in South Wales. She placed an
advert in The Evening Press giving a Box No. to reply to. A reply was received
from a Mrs. Lydia English, whose sister Maude Treasure was pregnant. It was
agreed that Leslie James, as Mrs. English knew her, would take the baby when it
was born. Her landlady told the police that Willis had gone out later in the
day and had returned home drunk. She helped to get Willis to bed and noticed a
bundle by the bed. When she opened it, she was horrified to find the body of a
newborn baby girl. She called the police
and they arrested Rhoda Willis on the spot.
She was the last baby farmer to
be hanged on the 14th of August 1907 at Cardiff. Click here for a full
account of this case compiled from contemporary news reports.
As a result of these cases,
Parliament passed a number of acts to better protect babies and small children,
including the Infant Life Protection Act of 1897 and the Children’s Act of
1908. These included requirements that local authorities must be notified
within 48 hours with full details of any change of custody or death of a child
aged under seven and empowered the local authorities
to actively seek out baby farms and lying-in houses, to enter homes suspected
of abusing children, and to remove the children to a place of safety. It also
redefined improper care of infants; "no infant could be kept in a home
that was so unfit and so overcrowded as to endanger its health, and no infant
could be kept by an unfit nurse who threatened, by neglect or abuse, its proper
care and maintenance." The government also introduced proper regulations
for adoption and fostering which finally brought an end to baby farming in Britain.
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