I’m delighted to welcome Angela Buckley back to Criminal Historian, for a guest post about the subject of her new book…
After living in Manchester and London, I finally settled for a quieter life in the leafy village of Caversham, on the edge of Reading. However, little did I know that I was living close to the spot where a Victorian serial killer had disposed of the bodies of her tiny victims in the river Thames. The story of infamous baby farmer Amelia Dyer is tightly woven into Reading’s history and so I set out to piece together the details of her gruesome crimes.
I began my investigation from the first shocking discovery on this tranquil stretch of the Thames in the spring of 1896. On 30 March, a bargeman was towing a boat of ballast up the river when he spotted a brown paper parcel near to King’s Meadow, a recreation ground near to the Huntley and Palmer biscuit factory. He and his mate dragged the package towards the shore. They unravelled the damp parcel and cut through layers of flannel to reveal a child’s foot. The victim was a baby girl aged between six months and one year. She had been strangled with a piece of white tape that was tied around her neck and knotted under her left ear. Faint writing on the sodden package led the Reading Borough Police to local baby farmer, Amelia Dyer. I followed the story through the sensational headlines and graphic descriptions in the Berkshire Chronicle, just as the horrified Victorian residents would have done.
After running her baby farming business for some 30 years in Bristol, Amelia Dyer moved to Reading in 1895. Advertising in the local papers, she offered to look after children for a fee, usually five shillings a week, or £10 for a one-off adoption. Throughout her time in Reading she received a number of infants and older children into her household, which she shared with Jane ‘Granny’ Smith, an elderly woman whom she had met in the workhouse.
Nurse children were often neglected, drugged with laudanum and even starved to death, but Dyer was an even more heartless practitioner. When the bodies of babies Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons were found strangled in a submerged carpet bag, Chief Constable Tewsley of the Reading Police had enough evidence to build a case against her.
It has been an emotional experience following the trail of one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers. I have re-traced her steps along the pathways of the Thames, which have barely changed in just over a century. Overgrown with bushes and with dark, shady spots, it’s easy to imagine Dyer making her way after dark to the Clappers bridge to drop the babies’ bodies in the weir.
I have passed the two houses where she lived and I’ve been into Reading Prison, where she was held during her trials at the police court. I have discovered new information about the police officers investigating the case, including the invention of a special telescope that they used to scour the riverbed for bodies.
I have read some of Dyer’s original letters, in which she paints a picture of a cosy home waiting to receive a much-wanted adopted child. And even more chillingly, I have seen the photographs taken in 1896 of Dyer and her accomplice, son-in-law Arthur Ernest Palmer, as well as the images of the two fragile corpses of Doris Marmon and Harry Simmons.
This case, together with the convictions of other Victorian baby farmers, contributed to the gradual implementation of child protection legislation for fostered and adopted children. It is not known how many infants perished at Dyer’s hands, but it is likely to have been hundreds. Despite the tragic aspects of this dark story, I have been grateful for an opportunity to shine some light into the sinister world of Victorian baby farming and the plight of its tragic victims.
Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders by Angela Buckley is available in ebook and paperback via Amazon and other online retail outlets.
You can find out more about Angela’s work on her website, angelabuckleywriter.com.
My review of Amelia Dyer and the Baby Farm Murders will be published in the June issue of Your Family History magazine (on sale 10 May).Tweet