The Abusive Baby Farms of Victorian England
Victorian England was home to Jack the Ripper. Much has been talked about in his reign of terror. He was, actually, only one of many murderers that lived amongst the poor. Most had larger kill totals than him, yet many have not shared the infamy he has.
Victorian London was a harsh place to live. Most people lived in complete poverty, with not enough money to feed their families. Victorian London had many killers, the plague and poverty being two.
The daily struggle for survival was particularly hard for women and children. The vulnerable were not protected and many perished. Women were particularly treated badly. Pleasure during intercourse, for a woman, was considered only necessary for reproduction. If a woman was raped and fell pregnant, then she was lying and enjoyed the act. Unmarried mothers, in particular, faced great hardship. A young girl if pregnant had to find a way of dealing with the problem. For many, baby farms were one option.
Female serial killers are very rare. However, Victorian England was home to a unique breed. Those who murdered victims under their roof. These killers operated in the shadows. It was in these environments that Margaret Waters became infamous.
Who was Margaret Waters
Waters was born in Brixton in 1835. She came from a poor family with many siblings. To escape these trappings, she married young and had a good marriage, for 15 years, until he passed away.
Waters at the age of twenty-nine found herself without a husband, and unable to support herself. She could have turned to prostitution, like many other women in this situation, instead, she decided to open a baby farm.
Waters began by placing adverts in local newspapers, offering to ‘adopt’ children. For this service, she charged up to £10. In Victorian England, this was a substantial amount, approximately £1000 now. Some babies were illegitimate children of wealthy men, for these the money was a good investment to spare the embarrassment.
Once the sum had been paid, Waters would take the children with her. She promised the birth parents that she would find good families for them, until then, she would look after them hersle
Initially, Waters would then give the baby to a childminder and pay for two weeks care, much less than £10. She would fail to return for the child. The childminder would realise that the child was now their responsibility. Most were cast out onto the streets or left outside orphanages.
As time went on word got around about this woman that turned up with babies and never returned for them. Waters had to come up with another plan, to dispose of the unwanted children. Her next plan was to walk the baby down the street until she saw children playing. She would ask them to hold the baby, whilst she went into a couple of shops, sometimes even giving them a couple of shillings to buy sweets with. She would then run off, leaving the children holding the baby.
This scheme appeared to be working well, until she was nearly caught. One of the boys she left the baby with returned from the candy shop too soon, Waters took cover in a shop. The quick-thinking boy realised what was happening and burst into tears. This attracted the attention of a local policeman. Luck was on her side, all three headed in the opposite direction and she had time to escape.
Even though Waters was earning a considerable amount of money, she was in debt. Turning to loan sharks to help finance her lifestyle. These increasing debts meant that she needed to ‘adopt’ more babies, but disposing of them was time-consuming.
Waters began to keep the children at home. She drugged them so they were no trouble to her and then starved them to death. Her sister-in-law, Sarah Ellis was staying with her. It is unclear how much she was involved, or how much she knew.
Once the children had perished from starvation, Waters would wrap the bodies in old rags and leave them on a side street. Dumping bodies was common practice in London, during this time. Burials were expensive, leaving a body in a street was quicker and cheaper. Victorian people would have stepped over many corpses without being too concerned.
The Caring Grandfather
Margaret was caught, because of one grandfather who cared for his grandchild. Robert Tassie Cowen discovered his unwed daughter was pregnant, she was sixteen at the time. A woman with a child, who was unmarried, would struggle to find a good match. Keen to help his daughter secure a good future, he sought out the services of Waters.
He saw an advert in his local paper and made arrangements to meet with her. She claimed at the time to be a well off, married woman whose husband was desperate for children. Cowen agreed to hand over the infant on one condition, that he was kept up to date on the child’s progress. Waters agreed, thinking she had heard this all before and no one ever remembered the children they left. She could easily avoid Cowen anyway, as she had given him a false name and address. It was easy in London to get lost.
Margaret pretended not to be interested in the money at all. Taking £2 and promising to return for another £2. When she failed to return, so that Cowen could see the baby, he tried to seek her out. After weeks of searching, Cowen thought he had located the woman close by. He told the police and they went to visit, however, it was not Waters.
As the woman turned to leave, Cowen recognised the dress she was wearing as the same one Waters had worn during her last visit. He followed her, ending up in Frederick Street. The woman he followed was Ellis, he went into the house and found many children aged 2–5 years old. All were starving and could not be awakened. A bottle of laudanum was on the table and a doctor who attended confirmed the children were drugged. The children were placed in the care of a wet nurse, to try to save them. Many of them perished though, including Cowen’s grandson.
Margaret and Sarah were taken into custody following the death of five children. On examination, the Cowen child was found to weigh a little under 4lbs. He should have been over 12.
Waters immediately took full responsibility for the crimes, saying that her sister-in-law had been working for her. She claimed, ‘I am the sinner.’
The trial involved many witnesses being called. Much was made of Waters history. She was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Ellis was sentenced to 18 months of hard labour for her failure to care for the babies, on murder she was found not guilty. Waters claimed that she had cared for more than 40 children, over the four years she ran the farm
Waters was executed on 11th October 1870. She faced execution in a calm, manner. Several of the audience remarked on how calm she was. On the night of her execution, she wrote a statement in which she lay the blame for the baby deaths on the birth parents.
Without birth parents so keen to abandon their children, baby-farming would be impossible — Margaret Waters.
Waters was the first baby farmer to face the hangman’s noose, she was not the last. Many other women followed in her footsteps. Baby farming continued throughout the 1900s, until 1908 when the Children’s Act put set adoption laws and legislation in place. It is hard to estimate how many children this particular breed of serial killer murdered over the years.