Friday, 22 July 2016

'Suffering little children': the Victorian Crime of Baby-Farming


''Inspector Greig has served in the police force since he was eighteen. So he has seen and heard things that would turn the stomachs and harrow the souls of lesser men. 
It takes a lot to move him, but as he scrambles into the hole where number 9 Hind Street formerly stood, and looks down on the small bundles that are being carefully examined by two of his men, he feels an unexpected surge of emotion.
“What have we got?”
Sergeant Ben Hacket stares at him, his youthful face white and stricken. He is a country lad, new to London and to the Metropolitan Police. He hasn’t yet developed the hard carapace needed to survive the horrors he will encounter.
“Eleven dead babies, sir.”
A couple of contractors watching proceedings from the edge of the hole, turn their faces away. Greig nods, takes out his notebook and begins the laborious procedures necessary whenever a dead body - or bodies - is discovered. Upon these notes will depend the report that he will submit to the authorities and the sort of inquiries that he may be requested to undertake  as a consequence.
He writes down where the tiny bodies are lying, drawing sketches of their exact position and relation to each other. He makes notes on the old rags and newspapers covering them, and checks for any objects that may be in the vicinity that might have contributed to their deaths.
He works swiftly and in grim silence, watched by his colleagues and the shocked group of contractors. At last he closes the notebook and glances at Sergeant Hacket. 
“There will have to be a coroner’s inquest,” he says quietly.''
                                                                                              Rack & Ruin

It isn't often that I find myself writing through my tears, but for Rack & Ruin, the fourth book in the Stride & Cully series - this was the case. One of the themes in the book revolves around the awful practice of baby farming, via the chilling discovery of murdered babies in the cellar of an abandoned house. The fact that I now have two small grandchildren meant that my research into this area was even more poignant.

In Victorian times the attitude to illegitimacy and unwed mothers was harsh and punitive. The Bastardy Clause in the New Poor Laws of 1834 deliberately absolved fathers of any responsibility for their bastard children (sic) thus economically victimizing the mother in an attempt to restore female morality and discourage others from indulging in extra-marital promiscuity.

The practice of baby-farming was a direct result. Young women who had been seduced and abandoned, or raped by their employers would pay an individual to 'adopt' or 'foster' their children. The fees demanded by these individuals varied from £80 for well-off parents who wanted to keep the birth secret, to £5 for poorer women.

Once the fee was paid and the baby handed over, its fate was sealed. Starvation leading to early death. Babies were plied with alcohol, laudenum or Godfrey's Cordial - an opium based sedative, which meant they passed their short lives semi-comatose and disinclined to eat. Their milk was watered down with lime or other substances. The sole aim was to get rid of them as quickly as possible, so that more money could be made.

Often, babies were buried in the backyard, or their emaciated little bodies were wrapped in old rags and newspapers and dumped in deserted streets. Many were thrown into the Thames. Even when discovered, local coroners would probably record the deaths as 'lack of breast milk' or 'debility from birth'. Greig is lucky that in his case, the evidence of malpractice is so overwhelming that the coroner records a verdict of unlawful killing, meaning that he is free to track down the baby farmers and bring them before the courts.

Ironically there were vigilant laws in place against the mistreatment of animals, but until 1872 there were no regulations against the mistreatment of infants. Newspapers like the Daily Telegraph or the Christian Times ran scores of adverts from 'widows with a small family' who would be 'glad to accept the charge of a small child'.  Such was the horror of illegitimacy and the reverence for the sanctity of the family that it wasn't until 1897 that an amendment to the Infant Protection Act empowered local authorities to actively seek out baby farmers and remove children to a place of safety.

I find it equally unbelievable that several earlier attempts to stop baby farming were opposed by Parliament and members of the National Society of Women's Suffrage, who all saw it as an infringement on the rights of parents and an attempt by the state to interfere in ordinary citizens' lives.






19 comments:

  1. Have you read Angela Buckley's book about Amelia Dyer? https://lizannelloyd.wordpress.com/2016/05/06/amelia-dyer-and-the-baby-farm-murders-by-angela-buckley/

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    1. No, though I have come across her case in my research. She was notorious ..and there were others also. What interested me was the complete indifference of the government to the actual plight of the children - it was all concern for the 'morality' of the poor women. And all 'their fault'.

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  2. Baby farming had been going on for decades and probably centuries. It was a flourishing business in the early part of the 19th century. The Foundling Hospital was established as an alternate to infanticide and baby farming. The authorities turned a blind eye even when an establishment reported a dozen deaths-- infants did die. The fault was always laid on the female. Even when a putative father could be named, he was seldom made to pay. the rate payers blamed the woman and she was judged immoral with no guilt to the adulterous philandering husband or vile seducer. A very sorry picture in many ways throughout the ages. Of course the harsh laws didn't decrease the number of babies born out of wedlock any more than executions decreased the amount of crime. I think a law was passed in the 1830's requiring more investigation of the number of deaths -- not clear on that. Not clear from the article whether the babies were buried clandestinely or routinely after the required authorities had signed the certificate.

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    1. Many of the pregnant women in Victorian times were not allowed to enter the workhouse, such was the stigma. The Foundling Hospital was a wonderful opportunity - though I gather so great was the clamour for places that they had to ballot. The 1833 Poor Law Commission report on Bastardy (is this what you mean?) recommended that relief was stopped and young men should not be forced into unsuitable marriages which were 'detrimental to the country'. Thus the 1834 Bastardy Clause to the New Poor Law that decreed that mothers of bastard children now had to support themselves, as widows did. The huge urbanisation of Victorian cities especially London,together with the focus on the sanctity of marriage and the family, made life insupportable for so many more young girls.

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  3. For many years the argument was that parents had the right to place their children with what ever caretakers they favored.There wasn't much protection for infants . Infanticide charges were brought against single women who bore a child later found dead but only under clandestine birth statutes . Women who couldn't afford a baby farm dropped them down the privy , smothered them or abandoned them under a hedgerow. Some actually applauded the baby farms for trying to rescue some of the babies from death not knowing that most in in the business of disposing of unwanted infants. There were more rules for the protection of gam birds than infants because the children belonged to the father ( if legit ) and mother , if illegit. Of course, these parents didn't want the child to die when put out to nurse or to be cared for until weaned, but children died-- or so the argument went that defeated the bill. Not all the children sent to baby farms were illegitimate. A small number were legitimate but just another unwanted mouth to feed. In ether case , by sending the child to the baby farm no one had to admit they wanted the child dead but didn't want to do it themselves.

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    1. Exactly. The 'innocent' adverts in the newspapers of the time sent a coded message to mothers. What I found hard to cope with was that I was caring for my own small grandchild while writing - it broke my heart to think of a little one like her discarded for whatever reason and allowed to perish. Thanks for your input, BTW.

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  4. That is shocking and horrifying. How awful for those poor defenseless babies! I can't blame you for feeling tearful about it Yet in another way, it's strangely not all that surprising. For all their much-vaunted moralism, the Victorians could be an awful bunch of hypocrites with some very skewed priorities. Another example that still causes a certain amount of bad feeling in the Far East are the Opium Wars with China.

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    1. It was definitely a darker part of their time. Luckily, in the book, my hero sorts it! Sadly, in real life, it took a lot longer!

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    2. I'm glad to hear the hero successfully deals with it. As you say, though, it is so sad that it took longer to tackle in real life.

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  5. Words are beyond me. Disgust isn't. No wonder you were in tears!

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    1. I think having little ones in my life again brought it home ..

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  6. Fascinating, I have head of this but never read so much about it. Thanks so much. Really revealing.

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  7. It is amazing how long it takes for some legislatures to work. They knew of the abuses for a hundred years before anything was done. Just as they knew that not all husbands were kind and protective of their wives before they gave the wives any protection. Yet, let something happen that threatens the men or their sources of money and a bill will be passed within months.

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    1. Yep. Nothing changes..one thinks of FGM ...imagine if that was done to men?

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  8. This is so horrific that it made me feel sick. How could any human do that to any other human, never mind small babies. I am continually appalled at the depths to which human nature can sink.

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    1. Apologies! as you saw, from my historical commentator, it was an ongoing problem. Luckily, my 'hero' sorts it out! What amazed me was the reluctance of Parliament to amend the laws..classic phallocentric government"

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  9. Only the 1908 Children's Act finally took some action on behalf of the children.

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    1. Staggering how long it took. Mind, I think 'childhood' was a rarely recognised concept..the Victorians 'invented' it, but blithely ignored the thousands of barefoot destitute families they rode past in the street every day. The concept that it was 'their' fault' still pervades government thinking today.

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  10. Yes, we're so much more civilized. We just stop the beating heart of the unwanted ones before they ever have a chance to breathe air. And lie to mothers about the nature of the baby & its development.

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