The Baby Farmer
In the summer of 1896, 57-year-old Amelia Dyer was executed for the murder of a baby girl. It was a sample charge. The bodies of six more babies had been found, and further evidence pointed to at least 12 murders. Dyer probably killed many more babies - perhaps as many as 50. Some extraordinary documents, images and artefacts from the case survive, and are now housed in Thames Valley Police’s archives.
A combination of social and legal factors had made it possible for Dyer to murder infants for financial gain and escape detection for years. She might have gone on to kill many more but for a skilful forensic and undercover operation by detectives of Reading Borough Police.
In Victorian Britain, the prospects for most unmarried mothers were bleak. They faced a life of struggle caring for their children whilst earning enough to survive, in a society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatised.
Fostering and adoption services were sparsely regulated by modern standards. One result was the lucrative practice in which 'baby farmers' acted as adoption or fostering agents for an up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Although many baby farmers acted in good faith the practice was often exploitative, and it was difficult to trace what had happened to the children involved. Worse still, it was often in a baby farmer’s financial interest for the children left in their care not to survive.
In a climate like this, these newspaper advertisements placed by Amelia Dyer may have seemed a better prospect than many:
Tragically, any babies left with Dyer as a result may have been murdered within days, and possibly within hours.