Amelia Dyer, hanged for murder on June 10, 1897 at Newgate Prison, London. (Image from Thames Valley Police Museum)

By Sharon K. Gilbert

Illegitimate children were a major problem in the cramped cities of Victorian England, particularly in London. Though the legal system had originally (18th century) penalized men who fathered children out of wedlock, that financial roadblock was removed in 1834 with The New Poor Law (and its ‘bastardy’ clause). Now, the woman alone was responsible for the child’s welfare, which meant an unwed mother–often with few skills or prospects–was left to find means to support a dependent infant. Those in domestic service usually lost their jobs if found to be pregnant, and so that income might be lost. Not was unwed pregnancy and motherhood stigmatized, it was actually punished (in the misconception that doing so would prevent such pregnancies). However, young women without family or skills often found themselves seduced by unscrupulous men for personal reasons and often also for profit. Procurers prowled the backstreets of London with their eyes peeled for vulnerable young women. 

All of this led to a practice known as ‘baby farming’. Infants were rehomed or even sold to women or couples who pretended to offer safe housing and ‘love’ to the unwanted infant, but in truth these people often starved and drugged the babies in their care, leading to a major epidemic of infant deaths. It was not unusual for dead babies to be found in the streets or floating in the Thames.

The most famous of all the convicted ‘baby farming’ killers was Amelia Dyer, who may have murdered as many as 400 infants in her 30 years of ‘farming’. Proving that these children died of anything other than ‘natural deaths’ was often difficult, as infant mortality was high even in loving households, but Dyer made a practice of taping the children’s mouths shut with white tape and then either tossing them into the river or burying them in her garden. Unwed mothers might pay as much as thirty pounds (an enormous sum in the 1880s) to be rid of an unwanted infant, so Dyer was living well whilst murdering child after child after child.

Baby farming makes an appearance in Book 2 and Book 3 of the Redwing Saga–with a supernatural twist, of course. Book 2, currently titled ‘Blood Rites’, is scheduled for release at the end of summer, early fall.

Baby Farming in Victorian Times
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