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Friday, 7 January 2011

‘I Shall Have to Answer Before my Maker…’ Or: Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farming Trade:

I was a bit sceptical about doing a post about Amelia Dyer, and have held it back for quite a few weeks but I’m not sure why. I think it may be because I think its ‘old ground’ and everyone knows the story already. Then I wondered if that’s just me, because the story of Amelia Dyer was one of the first Victorian crimes I ever read about, and I consider myself a bit of a ‘young enthusiast’ in Victoriana – having only had a big interest in the subject for around 18 months to two years, and only blogging since September 2010.

With this in mind, its often difficult to judge what is ‘old ground’ for people interested in Victoriana – what I find exciting and interesting other people may read and be a bit blasé and bored by. But, after a little consideration, I have decided to edit the post a little, and publish it anyway, because it occurred to me that some people who read – not just this blog, but all blogs on all subjects – wont necessarily be enthusiasts or knowledgeable in the blog subject. I know I certainly visited a lot of websites and blogs in the last few years whilst trying to soak up as much knowledge and as many stories as possible.

So, after reading and re-reading my draft about Amelia Dyer, I thought I would shorten it, and add a bit more about the actual baby farming, and leave out the finer details for reasons of length and to keep it fairly interesting. If at the end you are still interested, or your initial interest in the life of Amelia Dyer has been piqued by this and you want to know more, there are many, far more extensive articles than this about her and baby farming, and also a few books too. I know off hand about a book entitled ‘Amelia Dyer: Angel maker’ which is widely available.

Anyway, this is the post, comments, as ever, appreciated:

The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we'd 'a' made a big fire,
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.

Amelia Dyer was born in 1838, the last of five children of Samuel and Sarah in the small village of Pyle Marsh, near Bristol.
Her father was a master shoemaker, and as such the family was fairly comfortable and the children were privileged enough to be taught to read and write – a luxury afforded to very few children in the 1840’s.
Amelia developed a fondness for literature and poetry, but her childhood was not all plain sailing; her mother became ill with the disease typhus and developed a mental illness in the mid to late 1840’s. Amelia, her siblings and father could only watch as her mother writhed in pain, suffering violent fits and outbursts. The family cared for her as best they could until she died – in pain and mad to the point of being a stranger – in 1848. Little Amelia was 10 years old.

After her mother's death, the family struggled to cope, and Amelia, being the youngest child, was shipped off to live with an aunt in Bristol where she became an apprentice to a corset maker. Ten years later Amelia and her siblings became orphans when their father died in 1859. The shoe making business was carried on by her eldest brother, Thomas. 
In 1861, at the age of 24, Amelia moved into lodgings in Trinity Street, Bristol. There she met, and soon married George Thomas, who was 59. On the marriage certificate they both lied about their age – a fairly common practice at the time – he subtracted 11 years from his age, whilst Amelia added 6 to hers, making it appear that she was 30 and he 48.

For a few years after marrying George, Amelia trained to be a nurse, a difficult, yet respectable job during the 19th century. She trained also with a midwife named Ellen Dane, from whom she learned some useful skills, most notably, an easier way to earn money than nursing; Ellen told Amelia that she could charge young women who had conceived illegitimate and unwanted children to lodge at her home. She could then help them give birth with her new skills, send them away, insisting that she would look after the unwanted child, and then farm the babies off for adoption, or, if unable to do this – just let them die.

In a society of morality where single parents and illegitimate children were frowned upon, the practice of baby-farming, in which women such as Amela Dyer offered to adopt unwanted and illegitimate children in return for regular payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers, was, unfortunately, not uncommon.
These baby-farmers could earn good money from the practice, particularly if a baby was the product of a scandalous affair, had well-off parents, or if the father of the child simply wanted to hush up his involvement with the mother. Fees between £50 and £80 were not uncommon in these circumstances. However, it was more likely that the baby-farmers’ ‘customers’ were just poor young women who either could not afford to keep a child, or, more tragically, could not get a place in the workhouse because of their "immorality". The baby-farmers would charge these women a more modest sum of around £5.

The actual babies were, to most baby-farmers, nothing more than an inconvenience. They had to be fed, cared for, bathed and clothed – all things that would cost money. Women who were in the business of baby farming for the cash were reluctant to spend on other peoples babies, so, to save money and even to hasten the death of the babies, they would be sedated with dangerous medicines available from chemists – most of which would contain opium derivatives, and yet were marketed as being good for babies and children. Some of these can be read about in an earlier post of mine here

Many children died as a result of such dubious practices as their supposed carers kept them in a constantly drugged and sedated state so they were still and quiet and, most importantly, unwilling to eat. This led to many cases of children starving to death.
Any mothers concerned for the safety or welfare of their children would often be too frightened or ashamed to tell the police about any suspected wrongdoing.

Back in the hospital, Amelia listened with interest as Ellen Danes described this money-making scheme.

In 1869, Amelia gave birth to a daughter, Ellen Thomas, but her 67 year old husband, George, died, leaving Amelia needing money. She could only think of one thing to do…

At the same time, an advert in the "Miscellaneous" column of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper appeared:

Wanted, respectable woman to take young child.’

The advert had been placed by Evelina Marmon, aged 25 who had given birth in a boarding house in Cheltenham to a little girl she named Doris.
Evelina, an attractive girl, worked as a barmaid in the Plough Hotel where she was popular with male customers; so popular, in fact, that she now found herself holding a baby thanks to one of the hotel’s patrons - a baby she could not bring up on her own.
Evelina purchased the paper to see if her advertisement had been included, and quite by chance, on the same page, saw an advert that caught her eye:

‘Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child, nice country home. Terms £10.’

Evelina contacted the woman named at the bottom, a “Mrs. Harding”. She met "Mrs. Harding" and paid the £10 fee to her to take baby Doris on the 31st of March 1896.
The following day, the 1st of April, “Mrs. Harding” took in another child, Harry Simmons. 

Before “Mrs Harding” took in these two children, on 30th March 1896, a bargeman taking cargo up the Thames at Reading saw a brown paper parcel lying in the river close to the bank.
Having fished it out with a boat hook, he began to unwrap it when a tiny human leg and foot appeared.

The body was that of Helena Fry; illegitimate child of Mary Fry, and a prosperous local merchant.
Baby Helena had been given to Amelia by Mary after the two arranged to meet at Bristol Temple Meads station on 5th March.
However, when Amelia got home to Reading that evening, she did not carry a baby under her arm, but rather, a brown paper parcel around two feet in length.

She hid the parcel in the house, until, after three weeks the smell became unbearable.
Amelia was then seen leaving the house with the package, on her way to throw it in the river. It did not sink, and the body of little Helena Fry was plucked from the river, 25 days after she had died.

The brown paper parcel that Helena had been wrapped in provided a vital clue for the police; it had the name and address of a Mrs Thomas on it. “Thomas”, it transpired, was one of Amelia’s aliases.
It had taken the police some time to trace Amelia due to her high number of aliases and her frequent changing of address, moving, as she did, between Bristol, Reading, Cardiff and London whenever she sensed the police closing in.

After the discovery of Helena Fry, the river was searched and two other tiny bodies were found;
Doris Marmon aged 4 months, and Harry Simmons, aged 13 months. Both bodies were wrapped in a carpet bag and both had white tapes round their necks.

In all, the corpses of 7 babies, all of whom had been strangled, were recovered from the Thames and each one had the same white tape around their neck, this was Amelia’s modus operandi and she would later tell the police “That [the presence of white tape] was how you could tell it was one of mine”

On 4th April 1896, Amelia Dyer was arrested and charged with murder.
In Reading gaol Amelia wrote her own confession, here, her own spelling and punctuation is preserved:

Sir will you kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates on Saturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do know I shal have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in Heaven a on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither of them had any thing at all to do with it, they never knew I contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was to late I am speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be forgiven, I myself and I alone must stand before my Maker in Heaven to give a answer for it all witnes my hand Amelia Dyer.
  — 16th April 1896

On 22nd May 1896, Amelia appeared at the Old Bailey where she pleaded guilty to only one murder, that of Doris Marmon.
At her trial, friends and family of Amelia’s testified that they had been growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged that she had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions. 
A man who had seen and spoken to Amelia when she had been disposing of the two bodies at Caversham Lock gave evidence in court, which proved significant.

Amelia’s daughter, Ellen Thomas, also gave graphic evidence that finally ensured her mother's conviction.

Amelia, in defense, offered insanity: after all, she had been twice committed to asylums in Bristol. The prosecution, however, successfully argued and showed that she had only ‘become mentally ill’ when she thought she was close to being caught; both committals coinciding with occasions when Amelia was concerned her crimes might have been exposed.

It took the jury only four and a half minutes to find her guilty. She was sentenced to death by hanging.

During 3 weeks in a condemned cell, Amelia wrote what she described as “her last true and only confession” which was so extensive that it filled five exercise books. She was visited on the night before her execution by the chaplain who asked if she had anything to confess, she offered him her exercise books, saying, "isn't this enough?’”

On Wednesday 10th June 1896, 58 year old Amelia Dyer stood on the scaffold at Newgate and was asked if she had anything to say. She replied; “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9am precisely.

She called herself "the angel-maker", as she once explained to her own little daughter who was curious about the babies that kept appearing in the household and then disappearing, that she was sending little children to Jesus because he wanted them far more than their mothers did.
Following the case of Amelia Dyer, which brought to light the abuses in baby-farming, adoption laws were made stricter, and local authorities were given the power to police baby farms in the hope of eradicating future abuse.
Despite this, and these authorities scrutinizing newspaper personal ads for the baby-farmers, the trafficking and abuse of infants continued.

Two years after Amelia was executed, railway workers in Newton Abbot, Devon found a parcel. Inside was a three-week-old girl. The infant, though, was not dead, and was found to be the daughter of a widow, Jane Hill. The baby had been given to a Mrs. Stewart, for £12, who had picked up the baby in Plymouth and dumped her on the next train. It has been claimed that "Mrs. Stewart" was Polly, the daughter of Amelia Dyer.


  1. I hadn't heard of this particular case, I'm more acquainted with poisonings. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, if I get a chance I'll look up the book you mentioned. The most alarming thing about these cases is how widespread they were.

    Was Dyer's lengthy confession preserved, do you know?

  2. If it is then the best place to start is the Thames Valley Police Museum, where they have a lot of Dyer paraphernalia, including photographs of some of the children she killed, and a lock of her hair, which was, I suppose, taken in the hope that newly developing forensic methods would be able to use it.

    The site for the museum is not particularly informative or extensive, but there are numbers you can call and an email address for the museum curator

    Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the post!

  3. What a very interesting an terrible story. I don't think I have come across it before, though I have certainly heard of baby farming. It seems there will always be people who will take advantage of the vulnerable, sadly.

    Ros Bott
    Tracing Ancestors in the UK

  4. Indeed, and it is sad that it only seems to be through cases such as these that laws and acts are brought in - always as a REACTION to something, and never as a prevention.

    Thanks for reading.

  5. A very sad story indeed and one that I wasn't familiar with either. But it doesn't really surprise me, given the stories my own grandmother used to tell me about how women "got rid of" their unwanted babies in those days. After all, there was no contraception then.

    How lucky we all are nowadays, what with the "morning after pill" etc.

  6. Times have certainly moved on. The tragedy of baby farming is that desperate mothers thought they were doing the best by their babies in handing them over to people like Amelia Dyer.

    Many, many babies suffered the same fate as Dyer's victims, only at the hands of their own mothers, who would pitch their babies into rivers or lakes to rid themselves of its burden, or, alternatively, drown themselves when they became pregnant.

    One of my favourite Victorian paintings (for its poignancy) is 'Found Drowned' by George Frederick Watts, which depicts a 'fallen woman' washed up on the banks of the Thames after drowning herself.

    It was a common end to the lives of a lot of women.

  7. Great post. Very interesting.

  8. Thanks for reading, and thanks for saying so!

  9. What a chilling story! I've studied women's crime in the eighteenth century where there are many similar instances, including servant girls who killed their own babies rather than risk losing their jobs. I thought, however, that by this late date (1890s) crimes like this couldn't happen in more 'enlightened' times. I guess social hypocrisy is timeless.

    Excellent post - I enjoyed reading it (despite the gruesome ending). Keep up the good work!

  10. I suppose as long as people have selfish needs - or at least self interest - at heart, crimes of a similar ilk to these will always occur, whether to make a profit or keep a job, in the end, it seems that at the root of most crimes like these is desperation and self - interest.

    As the 19th century ended, police resources got better and better which made crimes of this scale a lot harder to commit and thankfully much rarer these days, but you only have to look at the cases of poor children such as Victoria Climbie and Baby P to see that these crimes will, unfortunately, always happen.

    Thanks for reading and the comment.

  11. Dear Amateur Casual,
    Just found your blog while doing research on Dyer, great job! Hope you'll check my blog out too at

  12. Thanks Rosa, have put a link to your blog on here under 'Victorian and History Blogs'

  13. Will Crooks MP when he was with the London County Council delivered a killer blow against Baby Farming in London after the public outcry over the Amelia Dyer case. There's a whole chapter about it in this book if anyone is interested. It's a fascinating look at Victorian London. Will Crooks was sent to a Victorian workhouse as a boy and then grew into a social reformer who among other things humanized and reformed that very workhouse system. The book is 'Where there's a Will, there's a way. The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP'. It's on amazon or there is more info on Crooks on the author's website:

  14. Thanks, John, great comment.

    I've just bought 'Where There's a Will, There's a Way' and look forward to reading it. By the sounds of it, this fellow deserves a blog post here!

    Thanks again for putting me onto Will Crooks, and for taking the time to comment, also.

  15. Does anyone know who the other victims were?

  16. There is a slight mix-up with the timeline. Ellen Thomas was born in 1869, and the Marmon's post in the Bristol Times and Mirror was in 1896. Not quite around the same time.Otherwise, congratulations on a well-written article. I loved reading it.

  17. Does anyone know is Dyer's full confession, the one written in the "five exercise books" survived? If so, is there a transcript anywhere online?