Farming Babies In Greenwich
Don’t you just love domino-days – when one thought tips another which tips another? I don’t want to know why Richard was googling Baby Farming in Greenwich. I’m not even going to ask. But when he sent me an article about a case that became pivotal in the history of children’s rights, it got me to thinking about a Blue Plaque in Crooms Hill that has intrigued me for some time.
If you were that pariah of Victorian society, an unmarried mother, and especially if you were a poor unmarried mother, you didn’t have a huge amount of choice. You could ask the father to cough up for a spot of maintenance, but if you think the CSA sucks, you haven’t studied the ‘reforms’ of the Poor Law in 1834.
The original 1733 Act allowed the mother to sue the father for money,and if he didn’t (or couldn’t) pay, the parish would help out. The good Christians of 1834 were outraged, believing that that kind of generosity led to licentiousness and illegitimacy, so they added the Bastardy Clause, which took that right away and forced the woman to get the father to marry her if she wanted to see any financial help. After all, only the truly destitute should be allowed the luxury of the Workhouse…
There’s not much in the way of evidence that this increased the number of happy Victorian families, but what it did do was bring the baby farmers crawling out of the woodwork. These women would, for a fee, take your kiddie off your hands and ‘take care of it.’ And it’s entirely possible that some of them did actually mean that in the nurturing sense. Problem was, they were often so poor themselves they couldn’t look after the children too, and most of them were just in it for the money (alcoholism was rife.)
The newspaper ads are terrifying. Dorothy L Haller quotes a typical one:
NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT — The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and moderate allowance from her late husband’s friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent’s care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds
…which she points out was straight code for ‘baby farmer available. I’ll take the problem off your hands and you’ll never need to see your embarrassing little bundle again.’ The lump sum for babies under 12 months is because they were cheapest to bury.
They particularly liked the teeny ones because they could dose ‘em up with laudanum until they croaked, and, if they were small enough they didn’t even need the bother of burying them – they could just wrap the corpses up in newspaper and dump them in the Thames. The older ones, they kept just-alive, to keep the weekly payments going as long as possible before they popped their tiny clogs.
What I don’t get is that this was the norm – not the exception – and the upright, moral Victorians, for the most part, at best turned a blind eye. Some people started to get upset in the late 1860s, yet Parliament remained unmoved, even when a certain Mrs. L. Martin boasted of having disposed of 555 foetuses and infants in a 10 month period.
Mutterings were getting louder in 1870 when the Brixton Horrors created by a Mrs Waters who had drugged and starved 16 infants to death in a few weeks were taken up by the newspapers. The case that finally captured the public imagination was Mrs Hartnett of Greenwich who “for a fee, took a newborn from the lying-in house of Mr. Stevens and fed it watered down sour milk, arrowroot and corn flour until it succumbed from starvation 18 days later.”
To me, this sounds no more or less horrific than thousands of other infanticides, but it’s not always the outrageous that finally tips the scales, it’s everyday cruelty. The Infant Life Protection Society was formed, and a year later a bill was created with at least some basic rights for ‘bastard children’. Like all reforms, it was watered down, but it went on to form the basis of care for children until 1957.
Meanwhile, a Yorkshire Congregationalist clergyman, Benjamin Waugh, had moved to Greenwich in 1866 in the hope of doing some good in the notoriously poor town. He was as much shocked by the mothers of the farmed children as the farmers themselves, claiming at least some of them knew exactly what would happen to their babies and calling them “infamous creatures, mere shethings” (not really sure what a shething is, but I like the word a lot) though he accepted that sheer, grinding poverty led them to it. He hated the Poor Law; hated the workhouse system and hated the people who allowed baby farming to exist, writing a book about it, The Gaol Cradle, Who Rocks It? in 1873.
You probably won’t be familiar with his first endeavour, the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, launched in 1884, but you most definitely will know what it turned into – the NSPCC – in 1889.
I am sure someone here told me that his plaque in Crooms Hill, on the corner of Gloucester Circus, is on the wrong building – could someone confirm that, please? Meanwhile, if you fancy a little pilgrimage, he also lived at 53, Woodlands Villas (I get a bit confused around there -I think it might now be part of Vanbrugh Park.) Oh, and BTW I am convinced he hasn’t any direct connection with other famous Waughs.
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