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Baby Farming

One of the more distasteful aspects of Victorian England was the practice of taking in unwanted babies, and, in return for a commercial fee, either over-crowding them, or killing them.   It was known as baby farming

Sergeant Richard Relf became the first Metropolitan Police investigator semi-officially recognised for his expertise in relation to a specific type of crime.   Relf's investigation into 18 dead infants found in Brixton over  a short period of time led to baby farmer Margaret Walters being executed for the murders.   Relf then became an advisor for other similar enquiries until his retirement.

Charles Dickens had reported on the Tooting baby farm run by a man called Drouet ten years beforehand, but the case which perhaps gained most notoriety was that of Mrs Dyer, who was executed in 1896.


The investigation started when two bargemen on the River Thames found a parcel which had been weighed down, but disturbed by their barge pole.   Inside was the dead body of a baby, but the paper in which the body was wrapped led police to the "respectable" Mrs Dyer of Reading. She was known as a "benevolent old lady with a motherly heart, whose one pardonable weakness was a pronounced fondness for babies of all descriptions."


The police then started dragging the river and found yet more bodies of babies in that part of the river, each of which had been weighted with a brick.


Two babies were identified as Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons


In January 1896, Miss Marmon, a barmaid in Cheltenham, had found herself unable to care for her child properly, and answered an advert from a "Mrs Harding" seeking a child for adoption.    "Mrs Harding" duly arrived, took 10 as a fee for looking after the child, and made Miss Marmon happy that her child's future was now secure, especially with such an apparently motherly figure to look after her.   Miss Marmon identified "Mrs Harding" to the court as none other than Mrs Dyer.


                                                     Miss Marmon gives her baby to "Mrs Harding"

In an age when the intervention of social workers is sometimes resented, it is worth remembering the practices which led to social reformers to introduce regulations into child care and adoption.

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