BBC History Magazine

8 The chilling crimes of a ‘baby-farmer’

The discovery of an infant’s body in a Berkshire weir alerted police to one of the most gruesome criminal cases of the Victorian era


On 30 March 1896, a bargeman discovered the body of a baby girl, wrapped in brown paper, floating in the Thames near Caversham Weir just outside Reading. The bargeman called the police, who took the parcel back to the station for examinatio­n. The police surgeon, on finding “a piece of string… tied tightly around its neck”, concluded that the baby had been strangled. That might have been the end of the story, had the police not noticed a faded address written on the brown paper.

This informatio­n led the authoritie­s to the home of 58-year-old Amelia Dyer, who was arrested on suspicion of murder. A search of the premises produced “incriminat­ing letters, telegrams, pawn tickets [for baby clothes] and receipts for advertisem­ents in London and other papers”. Dyer, one reporter noted, “evidently carried on to a considerab­le extent” an “awful traffic in human life”.

Dyer was a ‘baby-farmer’, a woman who was given money to look after children on a residentia­l basis who were not her own. This was an industry that had emerged in the Victorian period to deal with children – born in and out of wedlock – whose mothers could not afford to support them. The baby farmer was given a lump sum to ‘adopt’ the child. Some, like Dyer, would then kill the child and pocket the money.

Missing children

Dyer was not the first murderous baby-farmer to come before the courts, but the scale of her enterprise transforme­d this case into one of the most prominent scandals of the Victorian age. During the month of April, while Dyer was held on remand in Reading Gaol, the bodies of another six babies linked to her were discovered near Caversham Weir. Evidence suggests that in the two months before her arrest, Dyer had acquired around 20 children, none of whom were still living with her. Over the course of Dyer’s 30-year career, it is estimated that she killed more than 300 children.

Dyer was convicted of murder, and hanged on 10 June. While the public were outraged by her crimes, some commentato­rs were more ambivalent. One journalist pointed to the “cruel and callous heartednes­s of parents, who fling away their offspring, to endure any fate that may await them at a mercenary stranger’s hands”.

Long-awaited infant protection legislatio­n tightened and added to existing regulation­s around childcare, but lawmakers failed to provide any new solutions for women who found themselves unexpected­ly pregnant with a child they could not support.

Rosalind Crone is professor of history at the Open University, and author of Violent Victorians (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Illiterate Inmates (Oxford University Press, 2022)

Rosalind Crone is the historical consultant on the BBC series Lady Killers with Lucy Worsley. You can listen to previous episodes on BBC Sounds:

Baby-farmers were paid to ‘adopt’ a child. Some then killed the child and pocketed the money

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