The shocking epidemic that spread to South Tyneside

A street scene from the 19th century.

A street scene from the 19th century.

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In the 1800s, Britain was in the midst of an epidemic of child killing, reveals local historian Dorothy Ramser.

The deaths were blamed on temporary madness following childbirth – and shockingly some of these killings undoubtedly happened here on South Tyneside and in other parts of the North East.

As Dorothy explains: “It was said that ‘the mother is urged on by some unaccountable impulse to commit violence on herself or on her offspring’.”

And it was far more commonplace than we, today, could possibly imagine.

“The condition accounted for 15% of female asylum admissions,” states Dorothy.

“It was often believed that the police thought no more of finding the dead body of a child in the street than picking up a dead dog or cat. “I’m sure that was not the case but it did indicate how it was becoming shockingly commonplace.

“Many of the mothers involved were poor working class women, in service, and most of the babies were illegitimate.

“It must have been, in large part, an act of desperation as there would be little or no help for a poor single mother.

“In fact, infanticide was the most common crime for which women were executed. Nineteen women were hanged for this crime between 1800 and 1834.”

Dorothy says that the crime became so prevalent that in the 1840s, questions were asked in the House of Commons when Thomas Wakley MP, who was also a surgeon and a coroner, stated that infanticide was “going on to a frightful, to an enormous, a perfectly incredible extent....”

“Two decades on and the problem had reached enormous proportions and was thought of as one of the great plagues of society, like prostitution, gambling or drunkenness.

“Dead babies were found everywhere in London. In fact the capital’s canal boats were slowed down by the number of drowned infants with which they came into contact.

“In a report in the Morning Post, in 1864, it was stated that 3,664 inquests were held on children under one year old, and, of those, almost 1,100 were illegitimate.”

The report makes for grim reading, but just a year later, the Shields Gazette was reporting on a local case that is sure to shock some readers.

l Dorothy Ramser reveals more about the horrific story in tomorrow’s Time Of Our Lives.