Baby Farming

“Yeah, she farms her kids off on other people all the time.”

I’ve heard that expression on more than one occasion in my life, but I never really gave it much thought. I always knew it wasn’t a compliment. For some reason I decided to look into it the other day, and I was horrified by what I found.

According to Wikipedia, baby farming was common in Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Australia, New Zealand and America in the late 1800’s. It all started in England in 1834 when the parliament, in its infinite wisdom, passed the Poor Law Amendment Act. This act basically took away the obligation of fathers of illegitimate children to pay any type of support. This really put women in desperate situations, because there was such a stigma to having a baby out of wedlock that they often could not find jobs. They weren’t even allowed in the work houses.

There was also no real regulated system of adoption at the time, and I suspect that abortion was mostly known as a route to painful death, so what you would see were advertisements in the paper. Either the mother would be asking for a caring family to take in a child, or else a family would advertise that they sought to give a child a loving home. For a fee.

It’s possible that this system started off with the best of intentions, but as the decades passed it became rife with corruption. People who wanted easy money would take in these children, and if they were at all disruptive they would dose them with opiates, called “Mother’s Helpers”, to shut them up. Here’s one brand.

mothers helpers

[Image credit:]

The more these products were used, the more the children became listless and apathetic and disinterested in food. Many would die of starvation. If the baby farmers had received a flat fee, they now had that money with no additional expense. If they took a weekly payment, many of them would send letters to the mothers, implying that the children were still alive so that the money would keep rolling in. Those types of farmers would change their addresses frequently so that they’d be harder to find.

At the most horrible end of the spectrum you find Amelia Dyer. She is actually the most prolific female serial killer in history, having killed off about 400 babies. It amazes me that she is not well known, but her story seems to have been covered over by the sands of time for most people. She was a baby farmer for decades, and probably would have gotten away with it if not for the fact that she disposed of a few of her victims in the river, and they were discovered. She buried many others in the back yards of the various houses in which she lived after having strangled them within minutes of bringing them to their new and “loving” home. There’s a rather upsetting documentary about her on Youtube.


Amelia Dyer. How desperate would you have to be to leave  your child with this stranger?

[Image credit:]

Thanks to Ms. Dyer, a lot of laws have been drastically changed, and Baby Farming is a thing of the past. The next time I hear about someone farming off their children, I’ll realize that they most likely have no idea about the gruesome history of that comment. But it will still give me a chill.


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