Amelia Dyer was a 'baby farmer'.
Someone who, for a fee, would look after children, usually
illegitimate, until a home could be found for them. Born in 1829
and raised in Bristol to respectable parents and trained as a
nurse before deciding that 'adopting' illegitimate infants was a
more lucrative career.
In 1879 she was sentenced to six
months' hard labour after being found guilty on a charge of
neglect. A doctor had become suspicious of the number of infants
who had died while in Mrs Dyer's care and had reported the matter
to the authorities. On her release she spent several periods in
mental institutions before resuming her child-care activities.
In 1895 she moved to Kensington
Road, Reading and began advertising. It was not long before small
bodies were being fished out of the Thames. One of the bodies
recovered had a tape around its neck and was wrapped in a parcel.
The paper enclosing the corpse had an address on it and this was
traced to Mrs Dyer. The tiny corpse was identified as Helena Fry.
Dyer was eventually arrested
on 4th April 1896. By May, seven tiny bodies had been recovered
from the Thames, all had the tape around their necks and all were
parcelled. Three of the bodies were identified as four-month-old
Doris Marmon, thirteen-month-old Harry Simmonds and the daughter
of Elizabeth Goulding. The others were to remain unidentified. She
soon confessed, saying "You'll know all mine by the tape around
their necks." While in Reading police station she made two
attempts to commit suicide.
She came to trial at the Old
Bailey in May 1896 charged with just the murder of Doris Marmon,
to which she pleaded guilty. The defence tried to prove insanity
but failed, despite her dubious mental history. The jury took five
minutes to find Dyer guilty and she was sentenced to death. James
Billington hanged her at Newgate on 10th June 1896. Police
suspected that at least 20 other children had disappeared in a
similar manner in the few months before her arrest.
Amelia Dyer was a 'baby farmer'. Someone who,
for a fee, would look after children, usually illegitimate, until
a home could be found for them. Mrs Dyer was 57-years-old and used
the Salvation Army as a reference. In 1895 she moved to Reading
and began advertising.
It wasn't long before small bodies were being
fished out of the Thames. One of the bodies recovered had a tape
around its neck and was wrapped in a parcel. The paper enclosing
the corpse had an address on it and this was traced to Mrs Dyer,
but she had moved on.
She was eventually arrested in April 1896. By
May seven tiny bodies had been recovered, all had the tape around
their necks and all were parcelled. She soon confessed, saying
You'll know all mine by the tape around their necks.
She came to trial in May 1896 at the Old
Bailey. She was in fact only tried for the murder of 4 month old
Doris Marmon. The defence tried to prove insanity but failed. The
motive for the murders seemed to be nothing more than greed, as
soon as she was in reciept of the boarding fees she would kill the
children to make room for more. The jury took five minutes to find
her guilty and she was sentenced to death. She was hanged at
Newgate on 10th June 1896 by James Billington.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer née Hobley
(1838 – 10 June 1896) was the most prolific baby farm murderer of
Victorian England. She was tried and hanged for one murder, but
there is little doubt she was responsible for many more similar
deaths—possibly 400 or more—over a period of perhaps twenty years.
Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was
not the product of grinding poverty. She was born the youngest of
5 (with 3 brothers, Thomas, James and William, and a sister, Ann)
in the small village of Pyle Marsh, just east of Bristol (now part
of Bristol's urban sprawl known as Pile Marsh), the
daughter of a master shoemaker, Samuel Hobley, and Sarah Hobley
née Weymouth. She learned to read and write and developed a love
of literature and poetry. However, her somewhat privileged
childhood was marred by the mental illness of her mother, caused
by typhus. Amelia witnessed her mother's violent fits and was
obliged to care for her until she died raving in 1848. Researchers
would later comment on the effect this had on Amelia, and also
what it would teach Amelia about the signs exhibited by those who
appear to lose their mind through illness.
After her mother's death Amelia lived with an
aunt in Bristol for a while, before serving an apprenticeship with
a corset maker. Her father died in 1859, her eldest brother Thomas
inheriting the family shoe business. In 1861, at the age of 24,
Amelia became permanently estranged from at least one of her
brothers, James, and moved into lodgings in Trinity Street,
Bristol. There she married George Thomas. George was 59 and they
both lied about their ages on the marriage certificate to reduce
the age gap. George deducted 11 years from his age and Amelia
added 6 years to her age—many sources later reported this age as
fact, causing much confusion.
For a couple of years, after marrying George
Thomas, she trained as a nurse, a somewhat gruelling job in
Victorian times, but it was seen as a respectable occupation, and
it enabled her to acquire useful skills. From contact with a
midwife, Ellen Dane, she learnt of an easier way to earn a
living—using her own home to provide lodgings for young women who
had conceived illegitimately and then farming off the babies for
adoption or allowing them to die of neglect and malnutrition
(Ellen Dane was forced to decamp to the USA, shortly after meeting
Amelia, to escape the attention of the authorities).
Unmarried mothers in Victorian England often
struggled to gain an income, since the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act
had removed any financial obligation from the fathers of
illegitimate children, whilst bringing up their children in a
society where single parenthood and illegitimacy were stigmatized.
This led to the practice of baby farming in which individuals
acted as adoption or fostering agents, in return for regular
payments or a single, up-front fee from the babies’ mothers. Many
businesses were set up to take in these young women and care for
them until they gave birth. The mothers subsequently left their
unwanted babies to be looked after as "nurse children".
The predicament of the parents involved was
often exploited for financial gain: if a baby had well-off parents
who were simply anxious to keep the birth secret, the single fee
might be as much as £80. £50 might be negotiated if the father of
the child wanted to hush up his involvement. However, it was more
common for these expectant young women, whose "immorality" even
precluded acceptance, at that time, into workhouses, to be
impoverished. Such women would be charged about £5.
Unscrupulous carers resorted to starving the
farmed-out babies, to save money and even to hasten death. Noisy
or demanding babies could be sedated with easily-available alcohol
and/or opiates. Godfrey's Cordial—known colloquially as
"Mother's Friend", (a syrup containing opium)—was a popular
choice, but there were several other similar preparations. Many
children died as a result of such dubious practices: "Opium killed
far more infants through starvation than directly through
overdose." Dr. Greenhow, investigating for the Privy Council,
noted how children "kept in a state of continued narcotism will be
thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished."
Death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was
likely to record the death as "'debility
from birth,' or 'lack of breast milk,' or simply 'starvation.'"
Mothers who chose to reclaim or simply check on the welfare of
their children could often encounter difficulties, but some would
simply be too frightened or ashamed to tell the police about any
suspected wrongdoing. Even the authorities often had problems
tracing any children that were reported missing.
This was the world opened up to her by the
now-departed Ellen Danes. Amelia had had to leave nursing with the
birth of a daughter, Ellen Thomas. In 1869 the elderly George
Thomas died and Amelia needed an income.
Amelia was apparently keen to make money from
baby farming, and alongside taking in expectant women, she would
advertise to nurse and adopt a baby, in return for a substantial
one-off payment and adequate clothing for the child. In her
advertisements and meetings with clients, she assured them that
she was respectable, married, and that she would provide a safe
and loving home for the child.
At some point in her baby farming career,
Amelia was prepared to forego the expense and inconvenience of
letting the children die through neglect and starvation; soon
after the receipt of each child, she murdered them, thus allowing
her to pocket most or all of the entire fee.
For some time, Dyer eluded the resulting
interest of police. She was eventually caught in 1879 after a
doctor was suspicious about the number of child deaths he had been
called to certify in Dyer's care. However, instead of being
convicted of murder or manslaughter, she was sentenced to six
months' hard labour for neglect. The experience allegedly almost
destroyed her mentally, though others have expressed incredulity
at the leniency of the sentence when compared to those handed out
for lesser crimes at that time.
Upon release, she attempted to resume her
nursing career. She had spells in mental hospitals due to her
alleged mental instability and suicidal tendencies; these always
coincided with times when it was convenient for her to
"disappear". Being a former asylum nurse Amelia knew how to behave
to ensure a relatively comfortable existence as an asylum inmate.
Dyer appears to have begun abusing alcohol and opium-based
products early in her killing career; her mental instability could
have been related to her substance abuse. In 1890, Dyer cared for
the illegitimate baby of a governess. When she returned to visit
the child, the governess was immediately suspicious and stripped
the baby to see if a birthmark was present on one of its hips. It
wasn't, and prolonged suspicions by the authorities led to Dyer
having, or feigning, a breakdown. Dyer at one point drank two
bottles of laudanum in a serious suicide attempt, but her
long-term abuse had built up her tolerance to opium products, so
Inevitably, she returned to baby farming, and
murder. Dyer realized the folly of involving doctors to issue
death certificates and began disposing of the bodies herself. The
precarious nature and extent of her activities again prompted
undesirable attention; she was alert to the attentions of
police—and of parents seeking to reclaim their children. She and
her family frequently relocated to different towns and cities to
escape suspicion, regain anonymity—and to acquire new business.
Over the years, Dyer used a succession of aliases.
In 1893, Dyer was discharged from her final
committal at Wells mental asylum. Unlike previous "breakdowns"
this had been a most disagreeable experience and she never entered
another asylum. Two years later, Dyer moved to Caversham,
Berkshire, accompanied by an unsuspecting associate, Jane "Granny"
Smith, whom Amelia had recruited from a brief spell in a workhouse
and Amelia's daughter and son-in-law, Mary Ann (known as Polly)
and Arthur Palmer. This was followed by a move to Kensington Road,
Reading, Berkshire later the same year. Smith was persuaded by
Amelia to be referred to as 'mother' in front of innocent women
handing over their children. This was an effort to present a
caring mother-daughter image.
Case study: the murder of Doris Marmon
In January 1896, Evelina Marmon, a popular
25-year-old barmaid, gave birth to an illegitimate daughter,
Doris, in a boarding house in Cheltenham. She quickly sought
offers of adoption, and placed an advertisement in the
"Miscellaneous" section of the Bristol Times & Mirror
newspaper. It simply read: "Wanted, respectable woman to take
young child." Marmon intended to go back to work and hoped to
eventually reclaim her child.
Coincidentally, next to her own, was an
advertisement reading: "Married couple with no family would adopt
healthy child, nice country home. Terms, £10". Marmon responded,
to a "Mrs. Harding", and a few days later she received a reply
from Dyer. From Oxford Road in Reading, "Mrs Harding" wrote that
"I should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could
bring up and call my own." She continued: "We are plain, homely
people, in fairly good circumstances. I don't want a child for
money's sake, but for company and home comfort. ... Myself and my
husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A
child with me will have a good home and a mother's love".
Evelina Marmon wanted to pay a more affordable,
weekly fee for the care of her daughter, but "Mrs Harding"
insisted on being given the one-off payment in advance. Marmon was
in desperate straits, so she reluctantly agreed to pay the £10,
and a week later "Mrs Harding" arrived in Cheltenham.
Marmon was apparently surprised by Dyer's
advanced age and stocky appearance, but Dyer seemed affectionate
towards Doris. Evelina handed over her daughter, a cardboard box
of clothes and the £10. Still distressed at having to give up care
for her daughter, Evelina accompanied Dyer to Cheltenham station,
and then on to Gloucester. She returned to her lodgings "a broken
woman". A few days later, she received a letter from "Mrs Harding"
saying all was well; Marmon wrote back, but received no reply.
Dyer did not travel to Reading, as she had told
Marmon. She went instead to 76 Mayo Road, Willesden, London where
her 23-year-old daughter Polly was staying. There, Dyer quickly
found some white edging tape used in dressmaking, wound it twice
around the baby's neck and tied a knot. Death would not have been
immediate. (Amelia later said "I used to like to watch them with
the tape around their neck, but it was soon all over with them")
Both women allegedly helped to wrap the body in
a napkin. They kept some of the clothes Marmon had packed; the
rest was destined for the pawnbroker. Dyer paid the rent to the
unwitting landlady, and gave her a pair of child's boots as a
present for her little girl. The following day, Wednesday 1 April
1896, another child, named Harry Simmons, was taken to Mayo Road.
However, with no spare white edging tape available, the length
around Doris' corpse was removed and used to strangle the 13
On April 2, both bodies were stacked into a
carpet bag, along with bricks for added weight. Dyer then headed
for Reading. At a secluded spot she knew well near a weir at
Caversham Lock, she forced the carpet bag through railings into
the River Thames.
Discovery of corpses
Unknown to Dyer, on 30 March 1896, a package
was retrieved from the Thames at Reading by a bargeman. It
contained the body of a baby girl, later identified as Helena Fry.
In the small detective force available to Reading Borough Police
headed by Chief Constable George Tewsley, a Detective Constable
Anderson made a crucial breakthrough. As well as finding a label
from Temple Meads station, Bristol, he used microscopic analysis
of the wrapping paper, and deciphered a faintly-legible name—Mrs
Thomas—and an address.
This evidence was enough to lead police to
Dyer, but they still had no strong evidence to connect her
directly with a serious crime. Additional evidence they gleaned
from witnesses, and information obtained from Bristol police, only
served to increase their concerns, and D.C. Anderson, with Sgt.
James, placed Dyer's home under surveillance. Subsequent
intelligence suggested that Dyer would abscond if she became at
all suspicious. The officers decided to use a young woman as a
decoy, hoping she would be able to secure a meeting with Dyer to
discuss her services. This may have been designed to help the
detectives to positively link Dyer to her business activities, or
it may have simply given them a reliable opportunity to arrest
It transpired that Dyer was expecting her new
client (the decoy) to call, but instead she found detectives
waiting on her doorstep. On April 3 (Good Friday), police raided
her home. They were apparently struck by the stench of human
decomposition, although no human remains were found. There was
however, plenty of other related evidence, including white edging
tape, telegrams regarding adoption arrangements, pawn tickets for
children's clothing, receipts for advertisements and letters from
mothers inquiring about the well-being of their children.
The police calculated that in the previous few
months alone, at least twenty children had been placed in the care
of a "Mrs. Thomas", now revealed to be Amelia Dyer. It also
appeared that she was about to move home again, this time to
Somerset. This rate of murder has led to some estimates that Mrs
Dyer may, over the course of decades, have killed over 400 babies
and children, making her one of the most prolific murderers ever,
as well as the most prolific murderess ever.
Helena Fry, the baby removed from the River
Thames on March 30, had been handed over to Dyer at Temple Meads
station on March 5. That same evening, she arrived home carrying
only a brown paper parcel. She hid the package in the house but,
after three weeks, the odor of decomposition prompted her to dump
the dead baby in the river. As it was not weighted adequately, it
had been easily spotted.
Amelia Dyer was arrested on April 4 and charged
with murder. Her son-in-law Arthur Palmer was charged as an
accessory. During April, the Thames was dragged and six more
bodies were discovered, including Doris Marmon and Harry
Simmons—Dyer's last victims. Each baby had been strangled with
white tape, which as she later told the police "was how you could
tell it was one of mine". Eleven days after handing her daughter
to Dyer, Evelina Marmon, whose name had emerged in items kept by
Dyer, identified her daughter's remains.
Inquest and trial
At the inquest into the deaths in early May, no
evidence was found that Mary Ann or Arthur Palmer had acted as
Dyer’s accomplices. Arthur Palmer was discharged as the result of
a confession written by Amelia Dyer. In Reading gaol she wrote
(with her own spelling and punctuation preserved):
Sir will you
kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates
on Saturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for
I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do
know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel
it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do
know I shal have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the
awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in
Heaven a on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her
husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither
of them had any thing at all to do with it, they never knew I
contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was to late I am
speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be
forgiven, I myself and I alone must stand before my Maker in
Heaven to give an answer for it all witnes my hand Amelia Dyer.
—April 16, 1896
On 22 May 1896, Amelia Dyer appeared at the Old
Bailey and pleaded guilty to one murder, that of Doris Marmon. Her
family and associates testified at her trial that they had been
growing suspicious and uneasy about her activities, and it emerged
that Dyer had narrowly escaped discovery on several occasions.
Evidence from a man who had seen and spoken to Dyer when she had
disposed of the two bodies at Caversham Lock also proved
significant. Her daughter had given graphic evidence that ensured
Amelia Dyer's conviction.
The only defence Dyer offered was insanity: she
had been twice committed to asylums in Bristol. However, the
prosecution argued successfully that her exhibitions of mental
instability had been a ploy to avoid suspicion; both committals
were said to have coincided with times when Dyer was concerned her
crimes might have been exposed.
It took the jury only four and a half minutes
to find her guilty. In her 3 weeks in the condemned cell, she
filled five exercise books with her "last true and only
confession". Visited the night before her execution by the
chaplain and asked if she had anything to confess, she offered him
her exercise books, saying, "isn't this enough?" Curiously she was
subpoenaed to appear as a witness in Polly's trial for murder, set
for a week after her own execution date. However it was
ruled that Amelia was already legally dead once sentenced and that
therefore her evidence would be inadmissible. Thus her execution
was not delayed. On the eve of her execution Amelia heard that the
charges against Polly had been dropped. She was hanged by James
Billington at Newgate Prison on Wednesday, 10 June 1896. Asked on
the scaffold if she had anything to say, she said "I have nothing
to say", just before being dropped at 9am precisely.
It is uncertain how many more children Amelia
Dyer murdered. However, inquiries from mothers, evidence of other
witnesses, and material found in Dyer’s homes, including letters
and many babies' clothes, pointed to many more.
The Dyer case caused a scandal. She became
known as the "Ogress of Reading", and she inspired a popular
The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we'd 'a' made a big fy-er
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.
Subsequently, adoption laws were made stricter,
giving local authorities the power to police baby farms in the
hope of stamping out abuse. Despite this and the scrutinizing of
newspaper personal ads, the trafficking and abuse of infants did
not stop. Two years after Dyer's execution, railway workers
inspecting carriages at Newton Abbot, Devon found a parcel. Inside
was a three-week-old girl, but though cold and wet, she was alive.
The daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, the baby had been given to a
Mrs. Stewart, for £12. She had picked up the baby at Plymouth—and
apparently dumped her on the next train. It has been claimed that
"Mrs. Stewart" was Polly, the daughter of Amelia Dyer.
Doris Marmon, 4 months old
Harry Simmons, 13 months old
Helena Fry, Age unknown, 1 year old or less
Jack the Ripper Speculation
Because she was a murderer alive at the time of
the Jack the Ripper killings, some have suggested that Amelia Dyer
was Jack the Ripper, who killed the prostitutes through botched
abortions. This suggestion was put forward by author William
Stewart, although he preferred Mary Pearcey as his chosen suspect.
There is, however, no evidence to connect Dyer to the Jack the
Amelia Dyer – The Reading Baby-farmer
Dyer was perhaps the best known and most prolific murderous baby
Mrs Dyer was 56 years old when she
moved from Bristol to Caversham in Reading in 1895 and began
advertising for babies to look after. On the 30th of March of
1896, a bargeman recovered the corpse of 15-month old Helena Fry
from the river Thames at Reading. Helena's body was wrapped in a
brown paper parcel which had the name of a Mrs. Thomas and her
address on it – Piggott’s Road Lower Caversham. Mrs. Thomas was
one of Mrs. Dyer's aliases.
It took the police some time to
trace Mrs. Dyer as she had already moved on, changing her address
quite frequently and also using various aliases. In the meantime,
a Cheltenham barmaid, 23 year old Evelina
Marmon, had answered a newspaper advert from a "Mrs Harding"
seeking a child for adoption. She met "Mrs Harding" and paid her a
£10 fee to take her four month old baby daughter Doris on the 31st
of March 1896. She felt comfortable with the arrangement as "Mrs
Harding" appeared to be a respectable and motherly person. The
following day Mrs. Dyer “adopted” another child, Harry Simmons.
The police finally located Mrs.
Dyer, who they kept under surveillance for several days before
mounting a “sting” operation using a young woman to pose as a
potential customer. She was arrested on April the 4th, 1896 when
she opened the door to the person she thought would be this
customer only to find two policemen standing there.
The two tiny bodies of Doris and
Harry were found in the Thames on April the 10th, 1896, both
wrapped in a carpet bag and both white tapes round their necks. In
all, the corpses of seven babies, all of whom had been strangled,
were recovered from the Thames and each one had the same white
tape around their neck. She soon confessed saying, "You’ll know
all mine by the tape around their necks.".
She made two attempts to commit
suicide in Reading police station. She came to trial before Mr.
Justice Hawkins at the Old Bailey on the 21st and 22nd of May 1896
charged with Doris' murder in the first instance, so that if she
was acquitted, she could be tried for another. This was standard
practice until recently in cases of multiple
murder. Miss Marmon identified Mrs
Dyer in court as "Mrs Harding". The defence tried to prove
insanity but failed to convince the jury who took just 5 minutes
to find her guilty. Although there was strong evidence of her
dubious sanity, her crimes were also appalling and the jury seemed
to give far more weight to that aspect. Mr. Justice Hawkins
sentenced her to death.
During her three weeks in the
condemned cell, she filled five exercise books with her "last true
and only confession." In a compassionate move the authorities
removed her from Newgate for a few hours so that she would not
have to hear the hanging of Milsom,
Fowler and Seaman the day before her own execution. The chaplain
visited her on the evening of the 9th and asked her if she had
anything to confess - she offered him her exercise books saying
"isn't this enough?"
She was hanged the following morning
(10th of June 1896) by James Billington, becoming at 57, the
oldest woman to be executed since 1843. She was given a drop of
five feet as she weighed some 15 stones. Her ghost was said to
haunt Newgate prison. No one will ever know the exact number of
her victims but at the time of her arrest, she had been carrying
on her trade for 15 to 20 years. She may have murdered as many as
400 babies in all.
Elizabeth Dyer was perhaps the best known and most prolific
murderous baby farmer. She was convicted of the murder of 4 month
old Doris Marmon who had been entrusted to her care, having
received £10 to look after her.
Doris' tiny body
was found in the Thames on April the 10th 1896, together with that
of one year old Harry Simmons, both wrapped in a carpet bag and
both with her trade mark white tapes round their necks. The Crown
decided to proceed only with Doris' murder in the first instance,
so that if Mrs. Dyer was acquitted they would be able to try her
for another. This was standard practice until recently.
Mrs Dyer who was fifty-seven years
old at the time of her arrest moved to Reading in 1895 where she
began advertising for babies to look after.
On the 30th of
March of 1895 a bargeman recovered the corpse of 15 month old
Helena Fry from the river Thames at Reading. Helena's body was
wrapped in a brown paper parcel which had Mrs. Dyer's address on
it. It took the police some time to trace the identity of the
owner of the parcel as Mrs. Dyer had moved on, changing her
address quite frequently and also using various aliases.
caught up with her and she was arrested on April the 4th 1896. The
corpses of seven babies, all of whom had been strangled had been
recovered from the Thames, all had the same white tape around
their necks. She soon confessed, saying "You’ll know all mine by
the tape around their necks." While in Reading police station she
made two attempts to commit suicide.
She came to trial
at the Old Bailey the 21st of May 1896, the trial lasting two
days. The defence tried to prove insanity but failed to convince
the jury who took just five minutes to find her guilty. Although
there was strong evidence of her dubious sanity her crimes were
also appalling and the jury seemed to give far more weight to that
aspect. Mr. Justice Hawkins sentenced her to death and while in
the condemned cell she filled five exercise books with her "last
true and only confession."
She decided not
to appeal and so her execution was set for three weeks after
sentence. The chaplain visited her the night before her execution
and asked her if she had anything to confess - she offered him her
exercise books saying "isn't this enough?"
She was hanged
the following morning (10th June 1896) by James Billington at
Newgate, becoming the oldest woman to be executed since 1843.
No-one will ever know the exact number of her victims, but at the
time of her arrest she had been carrying on her trade for fifteen
to twenty years.
butcher: One of Victorian Britain's most evil murderers exposed
By Tony Rennell
The advertisement in the "Miscellaneous" column
of the Bristol Times & Mirror newspaper was poignant.
"Wanted," it read, "respectable woman to take
It was a sadly common request in Victorian
Britain, where life was particularly hard for unmarried mothers.
The ad had been placed by 25-year-old Evelina
Marmon, who two months earlier, in January 1896, had given birth
in a boarding house in Cheltenham to a little girl she named
Evelina was a God-fearing farmer's daughter who
had gone astray, left the farm for city life and resorted to work
as a barmaid in the saloon of the Plough Hotel, an old coaching
With her blonde hair, busty figure and quick
wit, she was popular with its male customers - though which one of
them made her pregnant has gone unrecorded.
And now she was deserted, with a baby she loved
but knew she could not bring up on her own.
She would have to find a foster home for little
Doris - to have her "adopted out", in the language of the time -
go back to work and hope in time to be able to reclaim her child.
Quite by chance, next to her own ad, was
another: "Married couple with no family would adopt healthy child,
nice country home. Terms, £10."
It seemed the answer to her prayers, and she
quickly contacted the name at the bottom, a Mrs Harding.
From Oxford Road in Reading, Mrs Harding
replied in ecstatic terms.
"I should be glad to have a dear little baby
girl, one I could bring up and call my own."
She described her situation. "We are plain,
homely people, in fairly good circumstances. I don't want a child
for money's sake, but for company and home comfort.
"Myself and my husband are dearly fond of
children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a
good home and a mother's love."
Mrs Harding sounded every bit the respectable,
caring woman that Evelina hoped to find for Doris and she wrote at
once begging her not to consider anyone else until they had met.
The reply came back: "Rest assured I will do my
duty by that dear child. I will be a mother, as far as lies in my
"It is just lovely here, healthy and pleasant.
There is an orchard opposite our front door." Evelina could visit
whenever she wished.
The only issue between them was that Evelina
really wanted to pay a weekly fee for her daughter to be looked
after whereas Mrs Harding preferred - indeed, insisted on - a full
adoption and a one-off payment in advance of £10, for which "I
will take her entirely, and she shall be of no further expense to
Reluctantly, the desperate mother agreed, and a
week later Mrs Harding, clutching "a good warm shawl to wrap round
baby in the train for it is bitter cold", arrived in Cheltenham.
Evelina was surprised to discover that the
woman she had been corresponding with was more elderly than she
had expected and thick-set beneath her long cape. But she seemed
affectionate as she swaddled little Doris in the shawl.
Evelina handed over a cardboard box of clothes
she had packed - nappies, chemises, petticoats, frocks, nightgowns
and a powder box - and the £10, and received in return a signed
She accompanied Mrs Harding to Cheltenham
station and then on to Gloucester, where she stood weeping amid
the choking steam on the platform as the 5.20pm train took her
little girl away. She returned to her lodgings a broken woman.
A few days later, she had a letter from Mrs
Harding saying all was well. Evelina wrote back straight away. She
never received a reply.
Evelina and little Doris Marmon had fallen
victim to one of the murkiest of all the many social evils in
Britain just over a century ago - the "baby farmers".
Infant mortality was high and children's lives
were cheap. Many families in straitened circumstances were happy
to dispose of an infant to a new home and not ask too many
questions about where and to whom it was going.
Some, like Evelina, had every intention of
retrieving their youngsters.
Others were just glad to see the back of them -
one less mouth to feed, one less burden in the struggle to
They were prey to the unscrupulous, the immoral
and the murderous, and none was quite as chillingly evil as the
"caring woman" to whom Doris had just been entrusted.
"Mrs Harding" was one of the many aliases of
Amelia Dyer, a hardfaced brute of a woman, whose crimes are
recalled in a new book.
In our child-centred society today, it is hard
to comprehend a time when there were dead babies by the thousands,
droves of missing Madeleines, scores of Myra Hindleys, and hardly
anyone batted an eyelid.
It was in such an environment that Amelia Dyer
plied her gruesome trade for more than a quarter of a century.
She was "the angel-maker", as she once
explained to her own little daughter, Polly, curious about the
babies that kept appearing in the household and then disappearing.
She was sending little children to Jesus, she
said, because He wanted them far more than their mothers did.
At 9pm, the train from Gloucester pulled into
Paddington station in London - not Reading, as she had told
Doris's mother - and Dyer struggled off, carrying a carpet bag,
the box of baby clothes and the baby herself, whimpering in the
shawl. She took a bus to Willesden, and got off at Mayo Road.
At the door of No 76, she was greeted by her
daughter Polly, now aged 23, a grown-up, married woman.
Once inside their rented rooms, Dyer lifted the
lid of a work basket and rifled through the tangle of threads and
thimbles for some white edging tape, enough to wrap twice around
the soft folds of Doris's neck.
Next the tape was pulled tight, held for a
second, and then tied in a knot. Doris would have struggled until
her limbs went limp, her mouth opening and closing in a last,
silent bid for life.
Then she joined the scores - no one ever knew
exactly how many - Dyer had already sent to their maker.
The two women bound the body in a napkin, then
picked over the clothes in the cardboard box, keeping the good
items, earmarking the rest for the pawnbroker. From Evelina's £10,
Dyer paid the rent she owed to her unwitting landlady, and even
gave her a pair of child's boots as a present for her little girl.
The very next day - Wednesday April 1, 1896 -
another infant, 13-month-old Harry Simmons, was brought to Mayo
Road in return for a £10 payment.
This time there was no spare tape to be found
in the work basket, so the knot was unpicked around Doris's neck
and the same white length used to strangle him.
The following evening, the two corpses were
stuffed, one on top of the other, into Dyer's carpet bag and
weighted down with bricks.
Then she took the bus to Paddington and the
train to Reading.
There she lugged her heavy load though the
streets down to the river and a lonely spot she knew well, by a
footbridge over a weir at Caversham Lock.
In the darkness she pushed the bag through the
railings until it fell and she heard it smack into the waters
As she turned to leave, a man hurried passed on
his way home and called out "Goodnight".
Later, his evidence at the Old Bailey would
help send 58-year-old Dyer to the gallows.
Unlike many of her generation, Amelia Dyer was
not the product of grinding poverty.
She was born in a small village near Bristol in
1838, daughter of a master shoemaker, and learned to read and
write and had a love of literature and poetry.
She trained as a nurse, a gruelling job but a
skilled and respectable one.
From a midwife, she learned of a less arduous
way of earning a living - providing lodgings in her own home for
young women who, in an unforgiving age, were pregnant outside of
From the moment their bump began to show they
were shunned by polite society or sacked if they were in work.
So for a fee, unscrupulous businesses offered
to take in these young women and see them through to the birth.
After the mothers left, their unwanted babies would be looked
after as "nurse children".
The money differed. If the girl was from a
well-off background with parents anxious to keep her plight
secret, it might be as much as £80.
Or, say, £50 if the father of the child was
prepared to contribute in order to hush up his involvement.
But more often these were impoverished girls,
whose "immorality" meant even the workhouse wouldn't take them,
and for them the deal might be done for a fiver.
To cut costs, the farmed-out babies were
starved, and to reduce the aggravation of looking after them they
were sedated with easily-available alcohol and opiates.
Godfrey's Cordial, a syrup laced with laudanum
and known colloquially as "The Quietness", was a favourite to put
a child fast asleep. And if the child died, so be it. Most did,
sooner or later.
One such establishment was described with
horror by a police officer who uncovered it in Brixton, London.
In one room, five three and four-week-old
infants were lying in filth, three under a shawl on a sofa and two
stuffed into a small crib.
They were ashen-faced and emaciated like
miniature crones, their bones visible through transparent skin.
They lay open-mouthed, in a state of torpor,
eyes glazed, scarcely human. What chilled the policeman was the
silence: "Instead of the noises to be expected from children of
tender age, they were lying without a moan from their wretched
lips, and apparently dying."
Five infants were in another room, in slightly
better condition because a weekly fee was still being exacted for
them instead of the single "premium" that had been paid for the
ones encouraged to die quickly.
However immoral this business - and the
immorality usually stretched to those who deposited children
there, in full realisation of their fate - it was one much in
demand, and lucrative. There was a pile of cash to be made here,
as Amelia Dyer realised.
Her own particular refinement was not to bother
with letting the children die through neglect and starvation, but
to murder them straight away and pocket all the money.
Year on year, Dyer dodged the police and the
inspectors of the newly-formed NSPCC.
She was caught once after a doctor was called
to certify the death of one child too many and raised the alarm.
But instead of manslaughter, she was convicted
of causing a child to die by neglect and served six months' hard
labour in prison, an experience that nearly destroyed her.
After that she tried going back to nursing. She
had spells in mental hospitals after suicide attempts.
But always she returned to baby farming,
eventually drawing her own family into the business.
She stopped calling doctors to issue death
certificates and disposed of the bodies secretly.
They moved homes frequently - Bristol, Reading,
Cardiff, London - as often as they scented the police closing in
or mothers and fathers on their trail trying to reclaim their
The killing stopped only after a bargeman
piloting a cargo up the Thames at Reading saw a brown paper parcel
lying in in shallow water near the bank.
He fished it out with a boat hook, pulled at
one end and a leg and a tiny human foot appeared.
A police inspection revealed the body of a
little girl, aged six to 12 months.
White tape was knotted round her neck. One
piece of the brown paper had a railway label on it from Temple
Meads Station, Bristol and the faint outline of handwriting.
A name - "Mrs Thomas" - and an address in
Reading could just be made out.
Four days later, on April 3, Good Friday,
police raided that address and were immediately struck by the
stench of human decomposition, though no body was found.
But white tape was, in a sewing basket, and in
cupboards were bundles of telegrams arranging adoptions, pawn
tickets for children's clothing, receipts for advertisements and
letters from mothers inquiring after their little ones.
In the past few months alone, they worked out,
20 children at least had been placed in the care of "Mrs Thomas",
now revealed as Amelia Dyer.
The police had arrived just in time. She was
about to do a moonlight flit again, this time to Somerset.
The body found by the bargee turned out to be
that of Helena Fry, illegitimate offspring of Mary Fry, a servant
girl from Bristol, and a well-to-do local merchant.
The child had been handed over to Dyer at
Bristol Temple Meads station on March 5.
But when Dyer got home to Reading that evening,
all she had with her was a brown paper parcel two feet long.
She hid it in the house, until, after three
weeks, the smell became unbearable.
Then she was seen leaving the house with the
parcel, saying she was going to the pawnshop.
In fact she threw in the bundle in the river.
But it did not sink, as the bargee discovered.
The river was now dragged. Three tiny bodies
were found, then the carpet bag with Doris and Harry inside, her
The next day, Evelina Marmon, whose name had
cropped up in Dyer's correspondence, was brought to Reading and
identified her daughter on the mortuary slab.
It had been a mere 11 days since she had
entrusted her child to "Mrs Harding".
"She was in perfect health when I sent her
away," was all the distraught woman could mutter.
Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison after a trial
in which her plea of insanity was rejected.
Her daughter gave graphic evidence that ensured
her conviction (while going unpunished herself for reasons still
not clear). The jury was out for just four-and-a-half minutes
before condemning her.
The details of what she had done caused a
scandal. Stricter adoption laws gave local authorities the power
to police baby farms and stamp out abuse. Personal ads of
newspapers were to be scrutinised.
But baby trafficking did not stop. Two years
after Dyer's execution, railway workers inspecting carriages
shunted into a siding at Newton Abbot from the Plymouth express
found a parcel tied up with string.
Inside was a three-week-old girl, cold and wet
but just alive.
She was the daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, and
had been given to a woman named Mrs Stewart for £12.
"The little one would have a good home and a
parent's love and care," Mrs Stewart had written. Then she had
picked up the baby at Plymouth - and dumped her on the next train.
Who was "Mrs Stewart"? None other, it was
thought, than Polly, Amelia Dyer's daughter. The evil lived on.
DYER, Amelia Elizabeth (England)
That a man should kill a child is appalling; that a woman should
kill a child is unthinkable; but a woman who kills eight children
and perhaps many more . . .
Amelia Dyer was known as the Reading Baby-farmer; having once been
a member of the Salvation Army, she was a figure of trust to those
parents or guardians who, over the years, accepted her offer to
adopt unwanted children, and were more than happy to pay her the
regular boarding fees for their upkeep. But their trust was badly
shaken when in 1885 a boatman on the Thames noticed something
unusual floating in the water. Rescuing it, he was shocked to find
that, wrapped in a brown paper parcel, was a dead baby, with a
tape tied tightly round its neck. The parcel bore an address: Mrs
Thomas, Piggotts Road, Lower Caversham.
police immediately went to the address, only to discover that
their quarry had moved away and had, moreover, changed her name.
Worse was to follow, for within the next few days two more bodies
were found floating in the river, each in a separate parcel, each
having been strangled by the tape around its throat.
the widespread hunt that ensued, Mrs Dyer, alias Thomas, alias
Harding, alias Stanfield, was found, and when arrested on a charge
of murdering a little girl named Fry, admitted her guilt, adding,
‘You’ll know all mine by the tapes around their necks.’
That statement was tragically borne out when no fewer than a
further four small corpses were fished out of the Thames, and it
was suspected that there could have been many more similarly
strangled over the years during which she had been a babyfarmer,
four more children having recently disappeared.
would appear that she would place an advertisement in local
papers, worded as follows:
should be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one I could bring
up and call my own. First I must tell you we are plain, homely
people, in fairly good circumstances. We live in our own house. I
have a good and comfortable home. We are out in the country and
sometimes I am alone a good deal. I do not want a child for
money’s sake but for company and home comfort. Myself and my
husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A
child with me will have a good home and a mother’s love and care.
We belong to the Church of England. Although I want to bring the
child up as my own, I should not mind the mother or any other
person coming to see the child at any time. It would be a
satisfaction to see and know the child was getting on all right. I
only hope we can come to terms.
latter offer of access was impossible, of course, Amelia Dyer
repeatedly changing her name and address. Women who responded to
the advertisement usually handed over a parcel of clothes, ten
pounds in cash, a considerable sum in those days, and the baby –
which she never saw again.
When her house was searched by the police, no less than three
hundredweight (336 lb) of children’s clothes were found, together
with a large number of pawn tickets for baby clothes.
May 1896 Amelia appeared in court charged with murdering a
four-month-old baby girl named Doris Marmon and a boy, Harry
Simmons. Her plea, that she was insane, was not accepted, the jury
taking only five minutes to find her guilty, and she was sentenced
to death. Confident of a reprieve, doubtless because of her age –
she was 57 – she spent her time in the condemned cell praying and
writing poems, one of which survives:
nature, Lord, I know with grief,
am a poor fallen leaf
Shrivelled and dry, near unto death
Driven with sin, as with a breath.
if by Grace I am made new,
Washed in the blood of Jesus, too,
Like to a lily, I shall stand
Spotless and pure at His right hand.
not content with the hypocritical tone of the verse, she had the
appalling gall to sign it ‘Mother’.
accordance with the regulations, which stipulated that executions
should take place at 8 a.m. on the first day after the
intervention of three Sundays from the day on which the sentence
was passed – in this case 10 June 1896 – Amelia herself was taken
into care, James Billington, the public executioner, a muscular
ex-coalminer, having temporarily adopted her. He escorted her up
the steps of the scaffold behind the high walls of Newgate Prison
and there guided her on to the trapdoors, where he hooded her. The
prison bell had already been tolling for the past fifteen minutes
and would continue to do so for the same length of time after the
execution had taken place. Crowds had gathered outside, waiting to
see the regulatory black flag which would be raised on the
prison’s flagpole at the moment the trapdoors opened, and also,
within the next few minutes, to read the Certificate of Death
which had to be displayed near the principal entrance to the
prison. They did not have long to wait, for Billington, never one
to linger, and no doubt recalling the manner in which Amelia Dyer
had strangled her helpless charges, positioned his version of a
tape, the noose, around her neck and swiftly operated the drop –
sending the cold-blooded killer plummeting into the depths of the
Whether Amelia’s spirit departed with her, though, is another
matter, it being rumoured that her ghost haunted the chief
warder’s office for some years following her execution.
Amazing True Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott
SEX: F RACE: W TYPE: N MOTIVE: CE
MO: "Baby farmer" who killed infants of unwed
DISPOSITION: Hanged June 10, 1896.