Sometimes something you read can open up a completely different way of looking at things!
Whilst reading Mary Hooper’s new novel ‘Velvet,’ which is mainly about Victorian spiritualism, I came across a reference to Amelia Dyer, who was hanged in 1896 for the murder of a baby. In the novel Velvet goes to a baby farm and steals a baby for her boss, to pretend it is a dead baby brought back to the real world by a spiritualist. Intrigued by Mary Hooper’s notes about baby farms I decided to look up Amelia Dyer’s case on Old Bailey Online [www.oldbaileyonline/org Case Reference Number: t18960518-451]
It turns out that Mrs Dyer had a previous form… a Bristol newspaper advert offering to adopt a child, for £10, provoked a mother to write to a ‘Mrs Harding’ and agree to hand over her illegitimate daughter and pay a one-off fee of £10 for her care. Within 10 days the baby was fished out of the River Thames at Reading, dead. Amelia Dyer had moved from slowly starving and neglecting babies in her care to actually murdering them. It is believed that, between 1879 and 1896 she may have been responsible for the death of over 400 infants! But how could she get away with it? By setting herself up in one place, putting adverts in the papers, moving on when things got a bit difficult, starting again somewhere else under a different name… it was hard for the police to catch up with her.
So what does this tell us about Victorian society? Life was virtually impossible for unmarried mothers, especially poor ones who had to ‘disappear’ to give birth and then find some way to look after the baby and go back to work. Unscrupulous people like Amelia Dyer would advertise and offer to adopt unwanted babies for a one-off fee, paid upfront, sometimes as much as £50 or more, plus baby clothes. Many baby farmers would have 6 or 8 or more young babies in their care, slowly dying of neglect or starvation. Patent medicines like ‘Godfrey’s Cordial,’ largely made up of opiates, were used to sedate babies and keep them quiet and listless. It was easy money if you could get away with it. Unmarried mothers were unlikely to make a fuss when they eventually received a letter announcing an unfortunate accident or death. And Amelia Dyer was not the only woman executed in Victorian Britain for baby farming deaths. What a great case study to create a debate about social conditions in Victorian Britain!
CPD Manager for the Historical Association and previously National Strategist for Key Stage 3 History. Alf has over 30 years history teaching experience and was lead author for Collins Key Stage 3 History resources.