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


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]

Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent


Detective Burgess and detective-sergeant Chide were looking for an infant when they called at a house in Olney Street, Walworth, south London. They had presumably received a tip-off that child was there or that someone in the house knew of its whereabouts. The person they questioned was Mary Boyle, a 30 year-old ‘ironer’ who was known by several other aliases (including Green, Kemp and Campbell).

They arrested Mary and took her back to the station to question her. There she was placed in an identity parade with other women and picked out by the mother of the missing baby, Mrs Mabel Reed. Boyle was then told she would be formally charged with stealing a six week-old male child and £3 in cash ‘by means of a trick’.

Mary vehemently denied the charge. She insisted instead that it had been given to her to adopt. Then where was it, the inspector asked her. ‘I will not tell you if you keep me here for 25 years’, she replied, adding ‘why do you call this stealing?’

The case came up before the Lambeth police magistrate in early May 1893. The police were still looking for the baby and Mary Boyle was still refusing to tell them where it was or admit she had taken it.

Inspector Harvey stated that: ‘You told this lady [Mrs Reed] that you had been confined with a dead baby seven weeks ago, and that you were the wife of a tea merchant at Eastbourne, and that you wanted the child to adopt, so your friends would think it was your own’.  Mary responded by saying that the child was well cared cared by a family in Leicester.

The child remained missing however, al the police had managed to find were its clothes, and a search was ongoing which would now presumably switch to Leicester. One can only imagine the emotional state of the mother. The police asked for, and were granted, a remand so that they could continue their investigation. The magistrate informed Mary that she ‘stood in a very serious position’.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury reported the case on the 13 May, using almost exactly the same text as The Standard, but adding the detail that the police that called on Mary had no warrant, and that initially she had refused to go with them, and that the family the baby was placed in at Leicester was that of a church minister.

The story has a happy ending I am glad to say. The child was found, not in Leicester but in a ditch in ‘a lonely lane’ near Gravesend in Kent. It was taken to the nearby workhouse at Hastings and, because of the widespread press reporting of a missing child, the police were informed. Mabel Reed then traveled to Hastings to identify her son, who was, according to the papers, ‘none the worse for his exposure’.

Having reunited mother and baby the investigation now turned back to Mary Boyle and her initial crime. A few days later the press reported that this was not Mary’s first office; in fact she had already served a prison sentence for abducting children in the past.

On the 21 May, with story making national news, readers were told that Mary had again appeared before at Lambeth Police Court. Mr Sims  led the prosecution on behalf of he Treasury and he stated that he found show that Boyle could be tied to ‘three cases in which the prisoner had obtained children’. He explained how Mrs Reed, now described as a ‘governess’,  had answered the following advertisement placed by  Boyle:

‘We should dearly love to adopt your little darling entirely as our own, and have it registered in our own name, it would have the most loving care, a good Christian home, and every care and attention’.

Mabel Reed met with Mary Boyle and the latter told her that her husband was a wealthy tea merchant and that they would give the child a good life and name it Arthur after her own father. She was desperate it seemed, having (as was stated earlier) lost her own child just seven weeks earlier.

Reed was convinced and so must have had her own problems in keeping her baby (no husband is mentioned so perhaps she was a widow and the child illegitimate?) and accompanied Mary to London Bridge station. There Mary asked her for £3 to buy clothes for the child, which she gave her. She didn’t seem to wonder at why a wealthy merchant’s wife would need to ask her for money for baby clothes for a child she was giving up, however…

The story captured the imagination of the reading public and lots of letters were sent to the press regarding ‘lost’ or ‘adopted’ babies and children. Lloyd’s Weekly then ran a column on the ‘business’ of adoption and baby-stealing, mentioning that several infants had been found ‘in out-of-the-way places near Maidstone’ (which is also in Kent).

Along with the letters received by the press were several at the Olney Street house and other addresses known to have been occupied by Boyle. These apparently came from other distressed mothers (or would-be adoptive mothers) who were using their offspring. One said:

‘How many more times am I to write to you to know what has become of my little Harry?’

Mary’s landlady was also reported to have aired her suspicions about her tenant. When Mary had retried home after a few days without her own child she had enquired what had happened to it. Mary told her that she didn’t want her husband to know about it, ‘so I have put it away where it will be looked after’. The pair had then had a conversation concerning the discovery of a baby’s dead body in the Grand Surrey Canal, which Mary thought was awful, saying ‘if I did such a thing I should never be able to rest for  a minute’.  She also reported that Boyle had hung religious tracts up on her walls, ‘one of which she committed to memory every day’.

The article concluded by saying that Mary was currently in Holloway Prison under  examination by the chief medical officer there, Dr Gilbert.  The police were still investigating and the notion that Mary Boyle was not in full command of her mind was clearly an avenue they were considering.

Mary was brought up at Lambeth again on 23 May; the same story was repeated (so anyone as yet unfamiliar with he case could catch up), and she was again remanded. On this occasion two other young women gave evidence very similar to Mabel Reed’s. One was a servant and said she had met Mary Boyle at Waterloo station and had named over £2 for clothes for her child that was being giving up for adoption. In this case Mary had suggested her husband was a minister in the Band of Hope, a Temperance organisation that worked with young children. The other was told Mary was the wife of a deacon. It was also feared that in these cases the children were dead, and as she left the dock at Lambeth Mary was hissed by the watching gallery.

Victorian Britain had already witnessed several ‘baby farming’ scandals, this case (dubbed the ‘traffic in babies’) seemed poised to shock the public just as deeply.

At the end of the month the press reported that another child had been found alive, in the infirmary at Greenwich. Mary again appeared in court and was one again remanded for further inquiry. It was also reported that Mary Boyle told the police that the two children belong to Ms Kent and Miss White, (the servants that came to lambeth to give obedience on the 23 May), were indeed dead. When she appeared again in early June Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that the court was so crowded with women and children it resembled a nursery. Mary was still being held at Holloway and the case continued.

By July several women had testified to having been ‘conned’ in to giving up their babies by Mary Boyle. As the case against her was focused on the discovery of the child at Gravesend she was eventually tried at the Maidstone Assizes on 14 July 1893. She was convicted of ‘obtaining a number of children by fraud, and afterwards abandoning them’. The judge sent her to prison for 14 years.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 09, 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 14, 1893; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 21, 1893; Daily News, Wednesday, May 24, 1893; Daily News, Saturday, July 15, 1893; Issue 14754. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.]

A child decides to stay where she is, despite her birth mother’s distress

In August 1875 a woman presented herself at Lambeth Police Court and made an application ‘of a very singular character’ to the sitting justice, Mr Chance.

She told him that she had twin girls but had been forced to give one of them up to the care of another woman some years before. Now she wanted her daughter back. She was ‘respectable looking’ and her child was now seven years of age. The girl’s father had left some time ago and she believed he was now in America, she was now living with another man and perhaps felt her relationship was more stable and she was better able to care for two children.

I can’t imagine the decision making that allowed a mother to part with one twin and keep the other, she must have been in a very dark place at the time.

However, having traced her daughter she now found that the woman that had brought her up was reluctant to part with her. The court inquired and the woman was brought to Lambeth along with the child in question. The public in court must have been gripped by this domestic drama unfolding before their eyes.

The stepmother told Mt Chance that she had looked after the child since she was ‘a few months old, and looked on her as her own’. She added that when she had been given the care of her she was in a very bad state. The mother immediately denied this and the paper reported the exchange that then took place.

Mr Chance asked the little girl: “Who ill treats you?” She ‘turned and pointed to a woman who had come with her mother’, and “Who would you sooner go with?” added the magistrate.

The small girl grabbed her stepmother . “Which is your mother?” Mr Chance asked. “this one” the girl replied. “Don’t you want want to go with the party who states she is your mother?” “No sir”.

So that was that for the magistrate, he told the mother he had no power to order the girl to go with her and if she wished to take things further she would have to apply to a ‘judge in chambers’. As the pair left the distraught mother made a grab for her estranged daughter, but without success.

I’m not sure a court would deal so casually with this sort of case today. The social services would probably be involved and the family courts as well. It is a very sad story for all involved, especially the twins who presumably now knew they had a sibling but were parted from them.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 11, 1875]

An ongoing case of child abduction

Dipping into the pages of the nineteenth-century press in the way I do means that sometimes you come across a story part of the way through. This is a blog of snapshots; moments in history captured from the cases that contemporary journalists or editors thought worthy of attention. Occasionally it is possible to follow these up through the system to the Old Bailey, but often they simply disappear. This is the nature of working with this sort of primary source; we are at the mercy of the editor’s knife or the archivist’s need for space. History can only be written from the material that survives and that can be quite problematic – just ask anyone who studies ancient history!

In June 1893 the law writer of the The Illustrated Police News (not it must be said an official police publication) attended Lambeth Police Court to follow the case of a woman accused of abducting children. It was a case that was bound to have shocked and concerned the paper’s readership, just as it would have done today.

Mary Boyle – a 30 year-old woman from Walworth who also went under the names of Green, Campbell and Kemp – was charged of stealing a six year-old child by ‘means of a trick’. The child’s mother, Mabel Louisa Read, had also reported that the accused had taken £3 from her. The police investigation had now uncovered several more victims and this hearing was convened to listen to their testimonies.

Alfred McKinder, ‘a bright little boy’ told the court that he saw a woman carrying a child wrapped in ”long clothes’. Some fifteen minutes later he saw the woman again but without the baby. Mary Jefferies who, like Alfred lived in Maidstone, reported hearing a baby crying as she walked down a lane. She soon found a child wrapped in a cloth marked ‘J’ lying in the grass.

The caretaker of the Duke Street Board School in Deptford also found a small child lying at the foot of the stairs of the school. This child belonged to a Matilda Kent who had given her into Boyle’s care (it is not stated why).

The Detective investigating the case said that Boyle had asked him ‘have you found any more babies?” He replied that he hadn’t but said ‘we have found two more mothers’ these were a Miss White and Miss Kent.

Herein lies the probable explanation for the case. If these women had had their children out of wedlock they pay have been paying Boyle to care for them. The Victorian period witnessed several high profile case of ‘baby farming’ (the most notorious being the case of Amelia Dyer who was hanged in 1896). Children were given up to be raised and looked after by women such as Dyer for a fee. This was an early form of fostering or adoption but was unregulated and dangerous. Unmarried mothers were driven to it by the stain of illegitimacy and by the desperation of not being able to support their children.

When Mary Boyle was told of the appearance of ‘two more mothers’ she baldy countered, ‘those two babies are dead’. She later changed her story and said one child was alive but in the Greenwich workhouse. The case was adjourned and Boyle remanded.

No one named Mary Boyle, Green or Campbell was tried at Old Bailey for child theft or murder. She may have been tried in Kent (as the offences or some of them, happened there). So this remains unfinished and perhaps like some of the mothers, we may never know what happened to those missing babies.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc , Saturday, June 17, 1893]