25th February 1834. Baby Farming.

‘A many years ago/When I was young and charming/As some of you may know/I practised baby farming’: HMS Pinafore 1878.(1

The practice of Baby Farming was widespread in the 19th and early 20th centuries and cited, ‘as the darkest and most ghastly shame in the land’, by a 19thc Director of the NSPCC.(2)

In a year when the New Poor Law was enacted, an article in The Times Today in 1834 echoed the Victorian moral and fiscal outrage over the state of poor relief and was, ‘adamant poor relief for destitute and relief of illegitimate children has reached a pitch extremely oppressive to parishes and grievously detrimental to female morals throughout England’.

One effect of the new Poor Law was the introduction of the Workhouse for those who couldn’t support themselves which included the illegitimate where support was not forthcoming from the mother.

The Bastardy clause in the 1834 Poor Law said  those illegitimate were to be the responsibility of mother up to 16. Also there were no longer to be penal sanctions on mother and father, where they existed.

Obviously those orphaned as the Dickens’ Oliver Twist were thrown on the Workhouse, but he was farmed out to a Mrs Mann as there was no wet-nurse available in the workhouse.

This is where Mr Bumble the Beadle enters as being in charge of Parish charity and Workhouse was supposed to inspect where Oliver was lodged, but he was more concerned with ‘feathering his own nest’ to be bothered with destitute children.


First edition of Oliver Twist. January 1846.

However Oliver was eventually to be returned to the Workhouse to ‘pick oakum’ where he was famously to ‘ask for more’.

In a growing urbanised society with the attendant scandal of  illegitimacy there grew the trade in farming out children to those willing to take them in exchange for a lump sum.

However any system can be abused and many women took the money but the children died of neglect. At least Oliver Twist survived.

Typical Ad

Typical Advert in newspapers.

Some were found guilty of murder of their charges with Mary Waters the first to be hanged in 1870 at Horsemonger Lane Gaol, London. (3)

On 12th October 1870 the Times reported that, ‘the wretched woman had systematically published adverts offering to adopt for remuneration’, which they deemed as inadequate in any case.

In 1867 Parliament was concerned enough to issue regulations regarding Baby Farming and the issue was taken up by The British Medical Journal and 1872 saw The Infant Protection Act.

This did not stop abuse and women continued to be hanged for murdering their charges, the most notorious case being that of Amelia Dyer in 1896. The last reported case was in Wales in 1907. 

(1) Gilbert & Sullivan Operetta.

(2) National Society for Protection of Cruelty to Children.

(3) After having been tried and convicted at the Old Bailey in September she was hanged on Tuesday October 11th 1870.

Ref: The Times 12th Oct. 1870.

Ref: Shmoop.com. Oliver Twist.

Ref: loyne.edu/history.

Ref: dailymail. Tony Rennell.24.9.2007. Baby Butchers.

Ref: vichist.blogspot.co.uk/baby-farmers/Pic.

Ref: wikipedia.org/Pic of Oliver Twist.



About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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