The Victorian Baby Farmers

Updated on January 3, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Being pregnant outside the bonds of marriage brought shame and ostracism upon the mother in Victorian England. Sometimes, unscrupulous women took on the job of looking after the infants for a fee. Some of these surrogate care givers found that dead babies were cheaper to raise than live ones.


The Illegitimate Children

In the nineteenth century, contraception was primitive and yet becoming pregnant outside the sanctity of marriage was deeply frowned upon. Poor women could throw themselves and their children on the mercy of the parish and enter the horrible world of the workhouse. Others had to go into the prostitution trade to feed their youngsters because few employers would hire a female shamed by being an unwed mother.

Some resorted to abandonment, but if the mother was discovered the courts were very unsympathetic. The very desperate resorted infanticide, but this was a crime that carried the death penalty if discovered.

A few were lucky enough to find a good family to adopt their child.

For young women from middle- and upper-class families there were baby farmers. For a fee, women undertook to raise infants and remove the stain of scandal from a family’s reputation.

For single women of the moneyed classes the problem of a pregnancy could be handled discreetly.
For single women of the moneyed classes the problem of a pregnancy could be handled discreetly. | Source

The Baby Farmers

Paid care givers had been around long before the Victorian era, but the strict and largely hypocritical prudery of that age gave the trade a boost.

Advertisements started to appear in newspapers offering to foster or adopt unwanted newborns. For a lump sum payment the baby would be placed with a woman loosely referred to as a nurse.

No doubt, the families were assured the infant would be raised in the best of all possible worlds and the care givers would do everything humanly possible to find the child a high-quality permanent home. Perhaps, the family might leave the infant behind with a few qualms but at least the little problem had been made to go away and Daisy’s reputation was intact; and that’s what mattered.

No doubt some of these “nurses” were well-intentioned; others were not. And that brings us to Margaret Waters.

For women who lived in the slums there were few legal options for dealing with an unwanted child.
For women who lived in the slums there were few legal options for dealing with an unwanted child. | Source

The Brixton Baby Farmer

Widowed before she was 30, Margaret Waters turned to baby farming to make a living. She charged eight to ten pounds (about $980 to $1,225 in today’s money) to take care of an unwanted child in her Brixton, south London, home.

In the beginning, she passed the infants on to other baby farmers and kept about two pounds as her commission. However, she figured out that she could keep the full amount by keeping the child and disposing of it in other ways.

It became her practice to dose the babies up with laudanum, an opiate that was freely available from tobacconists, barbers, and even stationers. This killed their appetites and sedated them so that didn’t make any noise. After a few days, the youngsters died of starvation.

Wrapped in rags or brown paper, the victims would be left in back alleys or under railway arches.

Eventually, the number of children dying in Waters care was noticed and a policeman was sent to her address to have a look. He testified about what he found: “Some half-dozen little infants lay together on a sofa, filthy, starving, and stupefied by laudanum.”

The youngsters were immediately put into state care but most were too weakened to survive. It’s thought she killed a total of 16 children, perhaps more.

According to a contemporary report in The Guardian “She considered the parents of illegitimate children who wanted to get rid of them by any means were more to blame than persons like herself. If there were no parents of this class, there would be no baby farmers.”

Margaret Waters is depicted by the Illustrated Police News disposing of a child's body.
Margaret Waters is depicted by the Illustrated Police News disposing of a child's body. | Source

Trial and Execution

The case came up in September 1870 at the Old Bailey. Margaret Waters faced five murder charges but only one conviction was needed for the sentence of death by hanging to be passed.

Appeals and other delays were speedily dealt with in those days so, on October 11, 1870, Margaret Waters was put in the hands of William Calcraft, Britain’s official hangman at the time.

The following day The Times opined that “A most just sentence has thus been executed, and the law has conspicuously fulfilled its appointed office of being a terror to evil-doers. A more terrible case, with respect both to the heinousness of the offence and to the unexpected vengeance which has overtaken it, has never occurred.”

Waters was the first baby farmer to be executed but not the last; that distinction went to Rhoda Willis.

A sketch of Rhoda Willis probably done at her trial.
A sketch of Rhoda Willis probably done at her trial. | Source

Murder on a Train

Rhoda Willis had a good education and a solid middle class upbringing, but life was not kind to her. Her husband died young. She lived with another man but that relationship fell apart and she started drinking.

Desperate for money, she decided to go into the baby farming trade. Through an advertisement she was contacted by a woman whose unmarried sister was pregnant. The baby was born on June 3, 1907 and, by arrangement, the newborn was handed over, along with a fee of £8 the next day.

The transfer took place at a railway station north of Cardiff, Wales. By the time Rhoda returned by train to her lodging in Cardiff, the newborn was dead. A couple of days later, Rhoda came back to her lodging drunk and as her landlady helped into bed she notice a bundle. It was the dead child.

Rhoda Willis was executed on August 14, 1907, the last woman to be hanged for a baby-farm murder.

Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer who is thought to have murdered hundreds of children. She was executed in 1896.
Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer who is thought to have murdered hundreds of children. She was executed in 1896. | Source

Bonus Factoids

In the 1840s, the infant mortality rate in Britain was about 150 per 1,000. Rapid urbanization causing pollution and poor sanitation saw that number shoot up over the next few decades. As a result, it was easy for corrupt baby farmers to pass off the deaths of children in their care as part of the overall mortality rates.

In June 1914, Chicago’s The Day Book ran an article under the headline “Rich Fathers of Nameless Kids Sought in Baby Farm Probe.” The newspaper reported “It is believed that some of these farms are working in league with shady doctors who attend unmarried mothers. It is known that the keepers of these farms shake down mothers, and then if trouble comes up threaten exposure and the girls are forced to keep silent.”

In 1907, a report exposed a baby farm in Perth, Australia. Of the 87 children a Mrs. Mitchell had been paid to look after none survived. A court decided she had willfully neglected the infants, although public opinion was that she was a serial killer.


  • “ ‘Baby Farming’ – a Tragedy of Victorian Times.”, undated.
  • “Margaret Waters.” Juan Ignacio Blanco, Murderpedia, undated.
  • “The Tale of Margaret Waters, Brixton’s Notorious 1870 Baby Farmer, as Reported in the Spectator’s Archives.” Stevie, Brixton History, June 10, 2013.
  • “Baby Farmers and Angelmakers: Childcare in 19th Century England.” The Ultimate History Project, undated.
  • “Rhoda Willis – The Last Baby Farmer to Hang.”, undated.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Dunbar Green profile image

      Richard Green 

      20 months ago from New Mexico

      Chilling! I didn't know about baby farming until today.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      20 months ago from UK

      This is a very sad tale, made sadder by its truth.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)