The Victorian Practice of Baby Farming

kaylarStarred Page By kaylar, 21st Sep 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Guides>History

How 'illegitimate' children were dealt with by some 'orphanages' in the Victorian Era


Having a child out of wedlock was a terrible sin. It carried a serious social stigma. The woman who was unmarried and pregnant had one real option; to give the baby away to a baby farm.

The unwed mother would pay over a sum for the baby's support, leave the baby and go away. The expectation was that the child would soon be adopted by a couple and raised as their own.

The mother would return to society, no one the wiser, the baby would grow up in a loving family and never know his past.

This was the standard in 'Victorian' times.


Although there were legitimate baby farms, there were also those which were not what was expected.

At some of these places, once the mother left, instead of using the money to look after the child, the money was appropriated by the 'Farmer' and the baby killed.

Victorian Britain was full of baby farmers who quietly disposed of the infants. Either letting them starve to death or smothering them.

No one really cared, at first.

After all, the mother was scorned as the lowest form of life, the infant was an unwanted nameless bastard. Who cared what happened to it?

And Then...

Bodies began to turn up.

Bodies of tiny infants. Newspapers could not keep count of all the bodies found strewn around towns and cities; every day.

Bodies of babies were found beneath the seat of a railway carriage, under an archway, in a sewer grating on the road side.

The number of dead babies became so overwhelming the public could not shrug. It was front page news. Investigations had to be done.

Where were all these dead babies coming from?

Just one Farmer

Amelia Dyer was born in Bristol to a respectable working-class family and attended school until she was fourteen.

At the age of 24 in 1861, Amelia married George Thomas, a 57-year-old widower. They had a daughter together before his death in 1869.

Three years later, she married William Dyer. They also had a daughter and a son, as well as several children who didn’t survive infancy.

Eventually Amelia left him.

She was a qualified nurse, so was employed. However, her primary occupation was baby farming.

Shea began by taking babies from their mothers for a fee and, for another fee, handing them over to baby farmers who, often as not, let them die.

Then, she took in pregnant women at her home (for a fee). She delivered the babies and claimed they were stillborn.

In 1879, after four babies in her care died within two weeks she came to the attention of the authorities.

Although charged for manslaughter, there was insufficient evidence, so Amelia was found guilty of criminal neglect. She served six months at hard labor.

When she left prison she seemed to 'go straight' and filled various low-paying jobs.

Soon enough she returned to Baby Farming.


Amelia considered how she had been caught and realised her 'mistake' was getting a doctor to sign the death certificates.

Without that intervention, she would never have been caught.

She decided not to bother with the Doctor, the Death Certificate, simply to dispose of the bodies herself.

After all, no one knew how many babies she had.

Amelia began to advertise herself as a respectable married woman who wanted to adopt or foster a baby. Of course, she needed to be paid for this service.

To avoid 'comebacks' she was always on the move and used a number of alias.

There were times she received six babies a day.

Getting Caught

In March of 1896, a bargeman pulled the body of fifteen-month-old baby out of the River Thames.

The baby had been strangled with dressmaking tape, which was still around her neck. When the police examined the paper the baby was wrapped in, they saw address: 26 Piggotts Road, Reading.

The police went to the address, found more dressmaking tape, piles of baby clothes, pawn tickets for more clothes, and letters from mothers asking about their children.

The house reeked of human decomposition.

A sting operation was set up.

On April 4, Amelia Dyer was arrested, charged with the murder of that baby, whose name was Helena Fry.

Investigators dragged the Thames and found four more bodies, three boys and one girl. All of them had the same dressmaking tape knotted around their throats.

Two of the victims were later identified as Harry Simmons, thirteen months, and Doris Marmon, four months.

They had been killed only a few days before Amelia’s arrest, stuffed into a carpetbag together and thrown off a dock. Later, two more bodies turned up: another girl and another boy.

The investigation determined that at least 20 children had been given over to Amelia Dyer’s care in the few months prior to her being caught.

During the previous year, between thirty and forty bodies had been pulled from the Thames. Almost all of them were of infants and authorities suspected most of the deaths were the work of one person.

Within a few days, Amelia had confessed everything.

Amelia confirmed that she’d dumped most of the babies’ bodies in the river. “You’ll know mine,” she said, “by the tape around their necks.”

Trial & Conviction

Amelia was first tried for one murder, just in case she was acquitted. If she was, there were a number of other cases that would be brought against her.

Amelia pleaded insanity, emphasizing her stays in insane asylums — but two of the three doctors who examined Amelia did not believe she was mentally unsound.

The jury deliberated four and a half minutes before finding her guilty.

On the scaffold, when asked for a last statement, Amelia answered, “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9:00 a.m.

Mad or Playing the system

Amelia had begun showing signs of mental illness shortly after her release from prison.

She had violent fits, claimed to hear voices, made at least one serious suicide attempt and was admitted on four separate occasions to three different asylums.

Her mental illness may have genuine, or having learned how to play the system she tended to have breakdowns when the authorities or parents seeking to reclaim their babies, showed up.

Maybe she planned that just in case she was caught she had a defense.

No Change

One would have thought that after this very public and scandalous event that the mere idea of Baby Farming would be eradicated.

The English Parliament did enact more laws in order to protect infants from suffering the same fate as those who had been in Amelia’s care. But this had no effect for during the next ten years, three more baby farmers were arrested and hung.


Adoption, Amelia Dyer, Illegitimate Birth, Killing Babies, Murder, Orphanage

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author avatar kaylar
I am passionate about history, culture, current events, science and law

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author avatar Retired
22nd Sep 2015 (#)

So, now in America in modern times we have baby-parts farming by Planned Parenthood, a government- funded agency. Isn't that a nice thing our liberal government does?

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author avatar Madan g singh
23rd Sep 2015 (#)

Great and interesting share

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author avatar Fern Mc Costigan
23rd Sep 2015 (#)

Awesome post!

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author avatar kaylar
24th Sep 2015 (#)

Thank you. I ran across the information and I was really shocked by thought I'd share it

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author avatar Mark Gordon Brown
16th Oct 2015 (#)

Weird that they would do this, I would have thought there would have been people back then that would pay to adopt a baby if they could not have one of their own, I would have thought baby selling would have been a good business, so its odd that they drowned so many instead.

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author avatar kaylar
16th Oct 2015 (#)

They wanted the money. The children meant nothing to them.

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