We are all familiar with Dr Harold Shipman and his reputation of being one of the most prolific serial killers of all time, with an estimated 250 murders to his name. He was not however the UK’s most prolific. Unheard of by most people, is the name Amelia Dyer – Baby farmer. It is estimated that over a 30 year period she killed at least 300 babies, and possibly as many as 400, that had been entrusted into her care.
‘Baby farming’ became a solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancy during the latter part of the 19th century. The lack of effective contraception, and the stigma of having a child out of wedlock led to a growing number of women taking in such children for a fee, usually in the region of around £10 to £15 pounds per child. This would have been quite a large sum of money at the time. There was no regulation during this period and no checks were made of these ‘adoptive’ parents, who were cashing in on what was a lucrative trade. Adverts were placed, quite legally, in newspapers offering to give homes to babies. Whilst some babies no doubt did find a home, many were not so lucky.
Dyer was born Amelia Elizabeth Hobley, to parents Samuel and Sarah in Pyle Marsh, now a part of Bristol. Hers was a relatively well off childhood – her father was a master shoemaker, and she and her four elder siblings all learned to read and write. Unfortunately her mother developed mental illness after contracting typhus. Amelia would have witnessed her mother’s fits and rantings, as she cared for her until her death in 1848. This is possibly where Amelia learned the signs of mental illness which she would later emulate. Following her mother’s death, Amelia went to live with her aunt in Bristol, eventually completing an apprenticeship as a corset maker. Amelia went on to marry the much older George Thomas Dyer. Both parties lied about their ages in order to lessen the age gap on the marriage certificate. He taking 11 years off and she adding six.
Following her marriage, Amelia trained as a nurse, which was deemed a respectable occupation for a married woman. It would have been during this time that she met a midwife by the name of Ellen Dane, from whom Amelia learned of an easier way to earn money. She learned that it was profitable to open up a home to where pregnant unmarried women could go to have their babies for a cost. The babies would then be adopted or fostered to often wealthy childless couples, again for a fee. Sometimes the babies were left to die of neglect. Amelia had to leave nursing following the birth of her elder daughter Ellen, and in 1869 George died leaving Amelia needing a way of supporting herself.
Alongside her baby farming business, Amelia began advertising, looking for babies to take in for a one off cost and a supply of clothes. By this time, Amelia had begun to kill the babies in her charge, it being much more financially beneficial than having to care for them. In 1879, a doctor became suspicious of the amount of death certificates he was being asked to sign for babies in Dyer’s care. As a result, Dyer was sentenced to six months hard labour for neglect. Upon her release Dyer was to spend time in asylums due to alleged mental instability and suicidal tendencies, which generally coincided with it being convenient for Dyer to disappear, when there began to be suspicions about her behaviour. Dyer had by this time realised that there were risks in having doctors involved in her schemes and was now disposing of the babies’ bodies herself. She and her family relocated many times and used many aliases in an attempt to evade the authorities.
In 1895 the Dyer family moved to Caversham, then a village on the outskirts of Reading in Berkshire. Later that same year Dyer moved to 45 Kensington Road, a terraced house in Reading, where she continued her ‘trade’. Dyer’s favoured method of disposing of the bodies of the infants was to throw them into the River Thames at Caversham weir. It was this that finally bought about her downfall. On 30th March 1896 the body of a baby girl was retrieved from the Thames by a bargeman. She had been strangled with white tape and wrapped up and placed in a carpet bag. The baby was later identified as Helena Fry. On close inspection of the wrappings, police were able to decipher an address that was traced back to Dyer. The Kensington Road address was put under surveillance and further witnesses eventually gave the Reading police enough to be sure that it was indeed Dyer that they were looking for.
It was decided that a young woman posing as a potential client would arrange a meeting with Dyer, thus providing the police with an opportunity to arrest her without the risk of her absconding again. On 3rd April, instead of the young woman, Dyer was met by the police, and her home searched. There was an abundance of evidence found incriminating her and the house allegedly reeked of decomposing flesh, although no remains were actually found at any point. Following Dyer’s arrest, her son-in-law, Arthur Palmer was charged with being an accessory, but a subsequent confession from Dyer meant that both Palmer and Dyer’s daughter Mary Ann (AKA Polly), who was also under suspicion, were innocent of any part in her crimes however unlikely their innocence.
During the days following the arrest, the Thames was dragged and a further six bodies were found including those of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons, Dyer’s final victims. Information found at the house was to lead police to Evelina Marmon, Doris’ mother who was able to identify her daughter’s remains.
Whilst in Reading gaol, Dyer wrote the following confession, which was presented to the inquest onto the babies’ deaths. (spellings etc are Dyer’s)
“Sir will you kindly grant me the favour of presenting this to the magistrates on Saturday the 18th instant I have made this statement out, for I may not have the opportunity then I must relieve my mind I do know and I feel my days are numbered on this earth but I do feel it is an awful thing drawing innocent people into trouble I do know I shal have to answer before my Maker in Heaven for the awful crimes I have committed but as God Almighty is my judge in Heaven a on Hearth neither my daughter Mary Ann Palmer nor her husband Alfred Ernest Palmer I do most solemnly declare neither of them had any thing at all to do with it, they never knew I contemplated doing such a wicked thing until it was to late I am speaking the truth and nothing but the truth as I hope to be forgiven, I myself and I alone must stand before my Maker in Heaven to give an answer for it all witnes my hand Amelia Dyer.
—April 16, 1896”
Dyer went on trial at the Old Bailey on 22nd May 1896, charged with the murder of Doris Harmon. Evidence was given by witnesses placing Dyer at the Thames when she was disposing of the babies, her family and associates expressed growing concerns about her behaviour, her daughter giving damning descriptions of her behaviour. Her only defence was insanity, the incarcerations in asylums being supposedly evidence of this. However it took the jury only four and a half minutes to reach a guilty verdict. The plea of insanity being viewed as a ploy.
During the next three weeks in the condemned cell, Dyer filled five exercise books full with her confessions. These she gave to the chaplain who visited her on the eve of her execution. Her execution took place at 9am on Wednesday 10th June 1896, at Newgate prison. The hangman being James Billington. The Dyer case caused a stir, ballads were written about the ‘Ogress of Reading’
“The old baby farmer, the wretched Miss Dyer
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid.
In times long ago, we’d ‘a’ made a big fy-er
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.”
Following the case there were moves to give more powers to police and councils with regard to adoptions, and to curb the activities of ‘baby farmers’. Although there continued to be cases. Two years after Dyer’s execution, railway workers in Newton Abbott in Devon, found a package which turned out to be a three week old baby girl, who was still alive. She was the daughter of a widow, who had given the baby to a ‘Mrs Stewart’ who it is claimed by some to have actually been Dyer’s daughter Mary Ann.