The authorities fail in an early attempt to protect fostered children from wilful neglect

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On 11 October 1870 Margaret Waters was hanged for the murder of more than a dozen infant children that had been given into her care. Waters was the the most notorious ‘baby farmer’ of the Victorian age but she was not alone. Many children suffered or died at the hands of neglectful or merely inept baby farmers and after Waters Parliament acted to protect children from this abuse, passing the Infant Life Protection Act of 1872.

Baby farming was a form of early fostering, but one that lacked the checks and controls in place today. The mothers of illegitimate children (or poor women who simply coldly cope with bringing up a child and working) were able to place their offspring with a baby farmer to raise. They would pay a small weekly fee and in return the new born child would be nursed by someone else. Often the money was simply not enough and farmers struggled to keep the children properly nourished. Illness followed malnutrition and death followed soon after in many cases. Women like Waters deliberately allowed their charges to wither and die, but very many infants simply died of unintentional neglect.

The Infant Life Protection Act required foster carers to register with the parish authorities and thus represents the first attempt to regulate baby farming. I wonder if that legislation – or the furore that surrounded the Margaret Waters case – was in the mind of the Hammersmith magistrate Mr Diplock when Annie Wheeler was brought before him in August 1872.

Wheeler stood in dock apparently dressed in mourning. ‘Draped in black’ the ‘middle-aged’ woman was represented by a solicitor, Mr Claydon. She was charged with the manslaughter of a child aged just five weeks.

Evidence for the prosecution began with Dr William Henry Harvey. He testified to visiting Wheeler’s house in Fulham where he examined the child in question. The female baby was dead and, in his opinion, had died of ‘exhaustion for the want of nourishment’. It wasn’t the first time he’d been there, a  few weeks earlier he’d attended to pronounce death on another infant who had died similarly of malnutrition and diarrhoea.

Detective Manley also testified to visiting Wheeler’s property and to seeing the dead child in her care. As he was examining her- later identified as Saran Ann Nash – he noticed another ‘in a cot, very thin, and apparently dying’. He took this child away and placed it with the Fulham workhouse authorities.

Annie Wheeler explained that little Sarah had been in her care for just three weeks. She’d been paid £4 and was to be paid 7s 6d a week thereafter. Wheeler then was fostering children and not making a very good job of it it seems. Two at least had died in her care, and another was now in the poor house infirmary in a very weak state.

Infant mortality was high in the Victorian period so the death of a child, especially an infant in its first year, was not at all unusual. The question here was whether Sarah’s death was caused by neglect (which would be manslaughter) or was simply unavoidable.  It wasn’t a question that a magistrate could rule upon, this had to go to a jury. Wheeler was remanded in custody and set for trial later that summer.

However, the case against her was weak and it didn’t get past the grand jury at Old Bailey. There was insufficient evidence to proceed, the prosecution barrister told the judge, and Wheeler was released and able to return to ‘caring’ for little children. If this was an early test for the Infant Life Protection Act then I fear it failed rather badly.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, August 03, 1872]

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