Sunday, 7 August 2005

'Baby-farmers' in Victorian London

A Dickensian Life - Oliver Twist epitomizes the life of an abandoned child in Victorian London

A wealth of information on the lives of London's poor during the Victorian era, can be found in Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. Contraception was not really understood or practiced in those days, so inevitably the poor would have children which many times they were not able to look after. Some were so poor they could not let their children out to play because they had no clothes for them. Thus we have the story of one mother, whose kids got out onto the street wearing nothing but some bits from an old sack. Parents were many times in prison, in the workhouse or dead.

The 'baby-farmer' was sort of like a baby-sitter but with a more sinister twist. While the parents or single mother worked, the children would be entrusted to the 'baby-farmer' to be looked after, for a fee of course. One tragic story tells of a mother who earning 6s and 3s a week making paper bags, put her baby in the care of one of these, paid her 4s and 6d , only to find out after a while that her baby had died because the carer was a drunk and did not look after the baby.

In the newspapers of the time there could often be found adverts such as this:

"Adoption: A person wishing a lasting and comfortable home for a young child of either sex will find this is a good opportunity. Advertisers having no children of their own are about to proceed to America. Premium £15"

Yes, for a fee of £12 to £15 these 'baby-farmers' would relieve the parents of all responsibility for the child. The newly 'adopted' children were usually disposed of as soon as was practically possible; they were either murdered or taken to some other part of London, where they were abandoned and left to fend for themselves.


Garry said...

Alterior, what a cool blog you have! I stumbled upon it several weeks ago and have read it regularly since then. As a fan of historical minutia, your research is most welcomed. Now if I could only find a similar site featuring my side of the pond! Nevertheless, keep up the great work. I look forward to reading more it in the future.

Alterior said...

Many thanks Garry! It is always such a pleasure to know that there are others, like you, out there who share my interest in the little, often overlooked details of history.

Ginger Mick said...

'Baby-farming' was a thriving industry in Australia during the same period. Three cases stand out.

A John Makin was hanged and his wife Sarah was sentenced to life for murdering 12 children in Sydney in the 1890's.

Frances Knorr was hanged in Melbourne around the same time. Her tally was thought to be 13. Frances was born Minnie Thwaites in Chelsea, London and was described as "an unruly child and a lustful teenager of many conquests".

The record seems to belong to Alice Mitchell of Perth who, in the early 1900's was suspected of murdering 37 children but, with "no bodies, no evidence, no witnesses to actual murder and no one talking", she escaped the charge of wilful murder and copped 5 years hard labour for the manslaughter of one Ethell Booth.

Tragic tales.

James O said...

Contradicts the widespread belief that child murder is a modern phenomenon which has increased since the Victorians/1930s/1950s. As far as i'm aware the murder of children has been at a consistent - and fortunately fairly low - level throughout recorded history. How does the Victorian period compare with the late 20th/early 21st century in this respect?

Alterior said...

It depends which country you are looking at and of course the context of the murder.

Suzelle said...

Minnie Dean wsa the first and last New Zealander to be hanged in NZ for 'baby farming'. It is said that she killed 20 children from infancy to 10years old.