Amelia Dyer may have started her career as respectfully as a “baby farmer” could, but her care soon transformed into terror for the poor infants she took under her wing. Years passed before the so-called caregiver was finally exposed as the Ogress of Reading—by which point she had claimed a shockingly high number of young lives.
In Victorian Britain, unmarried mothers strived to stay afloat. With the passage of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, fathers of illegitimate children no longer had a financial obligation to their offspring, which left unmarried mothers struggling to find any income. It was difficult to bring up children during Victorian society; single parenthood and illegitimacy were looked down upon. This led to the practice of baby farming. While many businesses were set up to take in young women and care for them until they gave birth, some unsavory operations had other plans. There could be lucrative financial gain if the baby had well-off parents—sometimes, a newborn was sent away in secret, hiding a scandalous or unwanted pregnancy.
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However, those who desperately needed the services were primarily impoverished women. During the 19th century, adoption, foster care, and out-nursing were normal practices across England. Mothers and families paid these institutions to take in and care for their newborns. Often, this was done out of desperation; impoverished new mothers, unable to afford longterm childcare, would pay the comparatively lower charge to send away their child. Yet wealthier families also paid for other similar services. Sometimes, newborns were sent to nearby villages to be cared for in their early years, returning to the family when they were toddlers.
In a rather well known example, Jane Austen’s family was accustomed to sending their children to a “wet nurse” in a nearby village for the beginning months of an infant’s life. Jane spent a fair amount of time with her parents in the beginning, but was in the care of a nurse for the first two years of her life. These wet nurses were reputable, even a part of the family in many ways, and her mother and father visited regularly.
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Later, James Edward Austen, Jane’s nephew, would write disapprovingly of this practice though he recognized the value in the out care system. Many babies who were provided for by a credible wet nurse would survive infancy in a time when this was not typical.
But not every institution was on that level. Infants who ended up at baby farms were frequently lost in the system. Others died of neglect—or worse. Once again, working class and single mothers were most likely to fall victim to these disreputable operations. Often, they could afford no other option.
Enter Amelia Dyer, one of the most infamous baby farmers of Victorian England. Amelia Hobley was born in a small village near Bristol in 1838. She was the daughter of a successful shoemaker and was privileged enough to learn to read and write at a time when the majority of women were illiterate. Despite her relative privilege, young Amelia had a difficult childhood due to her mother's mental illness. From a very young age, Amelia was obliged to watch her mother’s violent fits and care for her. In 1848, despite Amelia’s best efforts, her mother died. After her mother’s death, Amelia moved in with an aunt for a while. She eventually found an apprenticeship with a corset maker. In 1859, her father passed away and she became estranged to a few of her siblings. Later, she was trained as a nurse and soon began her adult life as a nurse and midwife.
At age 34, she married William Dyer, a brewers laborer from Bristol. William was her second husband—her first, much older husband had passed away in 1869. The Dyers had two children together, Mary Ann, who was better known as Polly, and William Samuel. Though she eventually left her husband and not much is known about her son, Polly became something of Dyer’s assistant.
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Her life as a midwife proved to be an arduous one, and Dyer was not keen on continuing it. It did, however, lead to her next business venture. Her friend and fellow midwife, Ellen Dane, put an idea into Dyer’s head: Charging families to care for their infants was far easier—and more lucrative—than bringing the newborns into the world.
Working under numerous aliases Dyer put out ads in the newspaper offering a “nice family with no children, quaint country home, £10”. Unwed, desperate mothers responded to this seemingly respectable “Mrs. Harding” and be thrilled to find a good home for their children.
Dyer wrote back, assuring the mother that she would do her “duty by that dear child. I will be a mother, as far as lies in my power”. Once the mothers were put at ease, the baby and adoption fees were handed over. Regardless of what the mother wanted, Dyer always insisted on a full adoption with no further contact. Many a desperate mother relented.
It's unclear just when Dyer's operation turned deadly; records indicate she initially tried to care for the newborns she adopted. At some point, however, whether intentionally or not, the babies under her care began to die. A cruel math then materialized: The quicker a newly adopted infant died, the less money Dyer spent on care, and the more profit went into her pockets.
Where Dyer once assisted in the process of welcoming life, she soon felt more content in her role as an Angel of Death.
Eventually, however, one too many death certificates were issued to Dyer. A doctor grew suspicious, and authorities were alerted. In 1879, Dyer was arrested. At the time, she was charged with allowing children to die by neglect rather than manslaughter or murder. She was sentenced to six months of hard labor—an experience she later claimed left her mentally ill.
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Once released, Dyer went in and out of mental hospitals. There is evidence that Dyer began abusing alcohol and opium-based products early on in her baby-farming career; at one point, Dyer drank two bottles of laudanum in a suicide attempt. However, her long-term abuse had built up her tolerance to opium products.
She soon revisited her deadly trade. In 1890, the illegitimate baby of a governess was put under Dyer’s care. When the mother returned for a visit she realized something was wrong. The governess grew suspicious and upon further inspection decided to strip the baby to locate a birthmark on one of its hips. The baby was missing the birthmark and an enraged mother began to question Dyer. This led to Dyer having—possibly feigning—a breakdown and entering a mental asylum. Having served as an asylum nurse, Dyer knew how to behave to ensure a comfortable environment during her time as an asylum inmate. Eventually, she also returned completely to baby farming. This time around, she took extra care to cover her tracks.
She no longer called for death certificates. Bodies were wrapped in bags, weighted down with bricks, and tossed into bodies of water. Dyer and her family frequently moved—through Bristol, Reading, Cardiff, and London, never remaining in one place for too long, never leaving a trace.
Until one cold March day in 1896.
A bargeman sending cargo up the Thames in Reading noticed a box lying along the riverbank. Upon further investigation, he discovered the body of an infant within. The bargeman called the police. They confirmed that the body was that of a little girl, between six and 12 months old.
They also discovered faint writing on the box that pointed to one “Mrs. Thomas” and a barely visible address.
Detectives were—and had been—onto Dyer but there was no strong evidence to link her directly to the crimes. They had collected additional evidence from witnesses and more information from Bristol police but were unable to find any conclusive details. That is when detectives decided to use a young woman as a decoy in order to secure a meeting with Dyer to discuss her services. Whether it was designed to link Dyer to her business or as a certain opportunity to arrest her, the plan worked. On April 3, 1896, Dyer was expecting a new client–she was instead greeted by detectives outside her home.
They entered and raided the home. Upon entering, authorities were apparently hit by the stench of death, though no bodies were actually discovered on the premises. What they did find, however, was a mountain of evidence: telegrams about adoption arrangements and letters from concerned mothers inquiring about the health and safety of their children, receipts for newspaper adverts and pawn tickets for children's clothing, and edging tape used to strangle babies to death. Authorities estimated that upwards of 20 children had been in the care of this “Mrs. Thomas” within the last few months alone; all told, the death toll may have been as high as 400.
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Amelia Dyer was arrested, charged with murder and brought to Newgate Prison where her plea for insanity was rejected. After a jury meeting of just four minutes, Dyer was condemned. On June 10, 1896, Amelia Dyer was hanged outside the Newgate Prison.
Dyer’s disturbing story dominated headlines and soon led to stricter adoption laws. Unfortunately, the baby trafficking did not cease completely after this horrifying case. Polly, Dyer’s daughter who got off scot-free from any charges after her mother testified that she had never been involved, was rumored to continue baby-farming after Amelia's hanging. A number of advertisements by a Mrs. Stewart for adoptable babies said “the little one would have a good home and a parent’s love and care.” Many observers believed that Mrs. Stewart was Polly’s pseudonym, following in a ghoulish family business she knew so well.
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