New rights for women helped end baby horror

The Illustrated Police News reports the execution of Margaret Waters.
The Illustrated Police News reports the execution of Margaret Waters.

More evidence emerges today of a gruesome crimewave which, as local historian Dorothy Ramser reveals, was sweeping the country – including here on South Tyneside – in Victorian England.

Dorothy explains how an edition of the Hartlepool Daily Mail, dated 1892, gave a report of an inquest into the death of Thomas Henry Cox, aged 10 months, an illegitimate child whose post-mortem examination showed him to be terribly emaciated.

“The coroner was of the opinion that the child had been deprived of sufficient nourishment for a very long time, and the cause of death was congestion of the lungs and malnutrition.

“It transpired that the child had been put out to nurse with a Mrs Barlow for 3s 6d per week and it was agreed that the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children should be contacted to ‘take the matter of this woman further as the child had died from neglect’.”

Margaret Waters, reveals Dorothy, was an infamous baby farmer who drugged and starved the children in her care.

“When finally brought to justice she was charged with five counts of murder as well as neglect,” says Dorothy, “although she was believed to have killed at least 19 infants.

“She turned to this unsavoury ‘career’ in 1864 after the death of her husband.

“The five deaths she was charged with were as a result of her feeding the babies opiates. Once dead, she would wrap their tiny bodies in brown paper before disposing of them on the streets of Brixton.

“The police caught up with her over the death of John Walter Cowen, the illegitimate son of 16-year-old Janet Cowen.

“On inspecting her home, a policeman wrote: ‘some half dozen little infants lay together on a sofa, filthy, starving and stupefied by laudanum’. “

A report in the Guardian on October 12, described her execution, stating: “She did not betray any emotion when led to the scaffold and once the rope was placed around her neck she said a prayer and immediately afterwards dropped to her death.

“In her police statement she had revealed that some of the babies given to her for adoption were from more affluent families, delivered to her by gentlemen with a nurse.

“Being caught out with an unwanted pregnancy was not the sole domain of the poor young girl.”

Her sister Sarah Ellis was convicted in the same case and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Dorothy continues her account by saying that many young women in service would discover they were pregnant and try to hide their growing stomachs, right up to the birth, in the fear they would lose their position, and would have no other choice but to seek refuge in the workhouse.

“It was a very real dilemma, for there was a stigma attached to being a single mother.

“Where would they live? What would they live on? Would their family disown them?”

However, despite all this horror and heartache, came the birth of an organisation dedicated to protecting the young and vulnerable, as Dorothy states.

“The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which was originally founded in 1883, as the Liverpool Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, by Thomas Agnew, a Liverpool businessman, and in London, by Rev. Benjamin Waugh, and then throughout the country.

“The NSPCC was granted its Royal Charter in 1895 when Queen Victoria became its first patron.

“It is worth pointing out that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded decades earlier in 1824.

“The welfare of children is closely bound to the welfare of women. It is hard to imagine, but women only became ‘persons’ in their own right by order of the Privy Council in 1929, the year after women were given equal voting rights with men.

“Before that a woman was presumably categorised as merely a daughter or a wife.

“ The introduction of the NHS in 1948, which gave everyone access to health care, further improved the welfare of women and children.” Prior to its introduction only the insured, usually men, benefited.

“In 1956, the Sexual Offences Act defined the crime of rape, and in 1967 abortion was decriminalised, and the backstreet abortionist was put out of business.

“That same year, the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the contraceptive pill and other methods of preventing pregnancy become available to all women in Family Planning Clinics regardless of the woman’s marital status.

“Women, for the first time, had the right to choose when they were to start a family,” Dorothy concludes .