Victorian Baby Farmers

In the course of my research for our next series of exhibitions I came across a reference to ‘Baby Farmers’.

In Victorian times if an unmarried women got pregnant, she was on her own, the man responsible was not obliged to help in any way whatsoever.

This led to a large number of women advertising that for a fee, they would take care of your baby until such a time as you were able to look after it yourself. They became known as baby farmers.

A lot of these women were legit but some became notrious for their terrible treatment of the babies.

The most prolific of all has to be Amelia Dyer, known as the ‘Ogress of Reading’ who is estimated to have disposed of over 400 babies in her 26 year career as a baby farmer.

One of several adverts placed by Amelia Dyer

It is said that she would starve the babies and to keep them quiet she would give them a potion called ‘Mothers Friend’ which was an opium-laced syrup. Eventually she would murder them by strangulation, wrap them in parcel paper and throw them in the river.

A box containing the brown paper packaging, string, white edging tape, and an evidence tag, was discovered in a loft by the great-great-grandson of DC James Beattie Anderson. It has now been donated to the Thames Valley Police museum in Sulhamstead, Berkshire.

One such ‘parcel’ was spotted by a bargeman after having got trapped by a footbridge, known as a ‘Clapper’ over the River Thames in Reading.

The Clapper over the River Thames in Reading

The body was identified as being that of Helena Fry aged 12 months which is what finally led to Amelia Dyer being caught.

She was hanged on 10th June 1896 at 9.00 am at Newgate Prison by James Billington.

She would have been in Newgate the same time as Oscar Wilde.

At her trial she is alleged to have said ‘You’ll know all mine by the tapes round their necks’.

Amelia Dyer was at one time connected with Jack the Ripper with the theory that those poor women died of botched abortions but this was never proven.

This is a potted account of Amelia Dyer, the full story makes fascinating as well as gruesome and heart breaking reading.

Amelia Dyers house in Reading

End note: Did you know that Charlie Chaplin spent a lot of his early years in the workhouse along with his mother and brother? Another fascinating story.

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