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]

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]