"Baby Farming" – a tragedy of Victorian times.

The 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).

If having 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 expense.
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.

Six baby farmers were hanged in England and one each in Scotland and Wales over the 40 year period from 1870 - 1909. These were :

  1. Margaret Waters (35) who was hanged by William Calcraft at Horsemonger Lane Goal in Surrey on Tuesday, the 11th of October 1870 for the murder John Walter Cowen.
  2. Annie 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.
  3. Jessie 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.
  4. Amelia 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.
  5. 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 Newgate.
  6. Annie 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.
  7. Rhoda 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.
35 year old widow, Margaret Waters was charged with five counts of wilful murder of children in the Brixton area of London, as well as neglect and conspiracy.  She had placed adverts in local newspapers headed “Adoption” claiming that a married couple in a good position were wishing to adopt a baby, as they were unable to have a child of their own.  A fee of £4 was to be payable.  In all 27 adverts were put in various papers.
The 16 year old daughter of the Cowen family had become pregnant and her father answered one of the adverts.  He received a letter signed M. Willis and arranged a meeting with this person whom he later identified as Margaret Waters.  He paid her £2 to take baby John who had been born on the 14th of May 1870.
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.  At the beginning of June 1870 Sgt. Relf spotted another advert for adoption in the same local paper, ostensibly placed by a Mrs. Oliver.  He interviewed Mrs. Oliver who turned out to be Sarah Ellis in connection with this but she would not give him an address.  However he managed to follow her to a house in Frederick Terrace.  The next morning, accompanied by Mr. Cowen he went to the house.  John Cowen was discovered along with five other infants, all in “pitiable” condition.  John should have weighed about 12 lbs. by this stage but in fact only weighed 6 lbs.  On a table he found a bottle of laudanum.  All the infants were removed to the workhouse but died as a result of malnutrition and laudanum ingestion.
Waters and her sister, 28 year old Sarah Ellis, were tried at the Old Bailey before the Lord Chief Baron over three days commencing on the 21st of September 1870.  Waters was convicted of the murder of John Walter Cowen for which she was sentenced to death. At the direction of the judge Sarah Ellis was acquitted of the murders, but convicted of obtaining money under false pretences and sentenced to 18 months in prison with hard labour.

Waters made a lengthy confession to a Dr. Edmunds in the condemned cell a few days before she was hanged.  Her execution was carried out by William Calcraft in a yard within Horsemonger Lane Goal (County of Surrey) at 9.00 am. on Tuesday, the 11th of October, 1870. She was able to walk to the gallows and shook hands with the Rev. John Jessop and Calcraft. The bolt was drawn at 9.05 am. and despite the short drop she reportedly died with barely a struggle. Some 2-300 people watched the black flag hoisted over the prison just after 9.00 am to show that the sentence had been carried out.  Having shaken hands with the Rev. John Jessop and Calcraft, despite the short drop she reportedly died with barely a struggle. Some 2-300 people watched the black flag hoisted over the prison just after 9.00 am to show that the sentence had been carried out. Here is the Illustrated Police News take on her hanging.  Her sister,28 year old Sarah Ellis, was convicted in the same case for obtaining money under false pretences and sentenced to 18 months in prison with hard labour.

Annie Tooke.
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.

Jessie King.
Jessie King lived with her partner Michael Pearson at lodgings in Canonmills in Edinburgh 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 strangled.
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 baby farmer.
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, assisted by William Wilkinson, becoming at 57, the oldest woman to be executed since 1843. Given her age and weight of 213 pounds she was given a drop of three feet six inches.  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 acquitted.

Annie Walters and Amelia Sach, the “Finchley Baby Farmers”. A photo is here - Amelia Sach on the left and Annie Walters on the right.
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.

Rhoda Willis.
Rhoda 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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