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Mrs Dyer, the Old Baby Farmer (1896)

Murder Ballads
Secret London

Reading woman takes in illegitimate babies for cash. Strangles 40 or more, then dumps their bodies in the Thames. Hanged at Newgate despite possible insanity.

The Broadside
I don't have a copy of Mrs Dyer's broadside, but the sleeve notes from Elsa Lanchester's 1960 recording describe it as “a perfect example of Victorian street balladry” and “the type of material which emanated from the cheap presses around Seven Dials”. Lanchester gives the track a brief spoken introduction, then delivers the lyrics in a comedy cockney accent. Ray Henderson bashes away behind her in best pub pianist style.

The Ballad
The old baby farmer has been executed,
It's quite time that she was put out of the way,
She was a bad woman, it is not disputed,
Not a word in her favour can anyone say.

That old baby farmer the wretch Mrs Dyer,
At the Old Bailey her wages is paid,
In times long ago we'd have made a big fire,
And roasted so nicely that wicked old jade.

It seems rather hard to run down a woman,
But this one was hardly a woman at all,
To make a fine living in ways so inhuman,
Carousing in comfort on poor girls' downfall.

Poor girls who fell down from the straight path of virtue,
What could they do with a child in their arms?
The fault they committed they could not undo,
So the baby was sent to the cruel baby farm.

To all these sad crimes there must be an ending,
Secrets like these forever can't last,
Say as you like, there is no defending,
The horrible tales we have heard in the past.

What did she think as she stood on the gallows?
Poor little victims in front of her eyes,
Her heart, if she had one, must have been callous,
The rope round her neck - how quickly time flies.

Down through the trapdoor quick disappearing,
The old baby farmer has come to her harm,
The sound of her own death bell's toll she was hearing,
Maybe she went to the cruel baby farm!

The Facts
Unmarried mothers in Victorian England had very few choices. Even the workhouse would turn them and their babies away.

She heard voices all the time telling her to destroy herself. Even the birds whistled 'Do it, do it'

One of the few options remaining was to use the era's “baby farmers”. These women would take in illegitimate babies for cash, sometimes allowing the mother to secretly give birth at the baby farmer's house too. They charged a lump sum of anywhere between 10 and 100 for this service, agreeing in return to feed and house the child until it was old enough to fend for itself. Often, they'd keep their costs to a minimum by giving the children a starvation diet or quelling their appetites with cheap gin. Some went further.
Amelia Dyer, born in Bristol in 1838, began her working life as a nurse, then heard how lucrative baby farming could be from a midwife she knew. She had her first run-in with the law in 1879, serving six months' hard labour for neglect after a local doctor became suspicious about the death certificate he was asked to issue for a baby in her care. Her experience in prison is sometimes blamed for Dyer's mental disintegration in the years that followed.
She returned to baby farming as soon as she got out, this time vowing to avoid the dangers of requesting a death certificate by disposing of any dead babies' remains herself. As an additional precaution, she began moving home very frequently to keep one step ahead of the anxious parents who sometimes pursued her, and began using a string of false names. One close escape came in 1891, when a determined mother turned up on Dyer's doorstep with a policeman in tow, demanding the return of a baby she'd left in her care. Dyer claimed she'd passed it on to an unidentified couple. Soon after this visit, she attempted to slit her own throat, leading to the first of several spells in a lunatic asylum.
“She was very violent and suffering from delusions,” Dr Frederick Logan said after examining Dyer in 1893. “She said she heard voices the whole time telling her to destroy herself and that the birds said 'Do it, do it'. I came to the conclusion that she was a person of unsound mind.” Dyer's daughter, Mary Palmer, added: “The only thing she seemed to want to do was commit suicide. She threatened my life on several occasions and once she attempted it.”
Every time Dyer was released - from prison, hospital, asylum or workhouse - she went straight back to baby farming, advertising her services as a kindly old woman in the newspapers and finding no shortage of clients. By June 1895, Mary and her husband Arthur had set up as baby farmers in their own right, and Mary handed an adopted girl of six over to Dyer. A month later, there was no sign of the child.
“I made enquiries about it,” Mary later claimed in court. “She told me she had a house in Bristol and she let it out in the usual manner for ladies to be confined there. One of the ladies took a fancy to the child, she handed it over to her and she adopted it for good. [...] I asked her for the address, and she said she was going abroad.”
Here, as elsewhere in her testimony, Mary is careful to portray herself as an innocent in the whole affair. In fact, many of the children in Mary's care died from the same neglect Dyer had shown, and it's impossible to believe Mary was not somehow complicit in her mother's infanticide. At best, she turned a deliberate blind eye to the killings because she was scared of Dyer. More likely, she actively colluded in them.
By October 1895, the whole family had moved to Reading (where Dyer later had a house of her own) and Mary had taken in a 16-month-old boy called Harold who came with a lump sum of 12 for his care.
Dyer placed more ads while at Reading, this time netting a young Cheltenham barmaid called Evelina Marmon who'd given birth to an illegitimate girl in January 1896, and a couple named Sargeant who hoped to place a baby boy for a lady's maid they knew who'd got herself in trouble. Dyer, who called herself Harding in the ads and used a Bristol mailbox address, replied to both. Her letters to Marmon are full of promises that baby Doris would be well cared for. “I don't want the child for money's sake, but for company and home comfort,” she wrote. “A child with me would have a good home and a mother's love and care.”
Meanwhile, Dyer arranged to meet Mrs Sargeant in Reading. The two women spent about 75 minutes together, during which time Dyer told Sargeant that her real name was Thomas rather than Harding, that she and her husband had lived in Reading for 22 years, and that they were much respected in the community. Sargeant agreed that Dyer could take the maid's baby - his name was Harry Simmonds - and agreed to pay her a total of 10 for this. They agreed to make the transfer at Paddington Station a week later on April 1, 1896.

Songs menu: A feast of facts and all the lyrics

The menu below lists a few of my favourite ballads from the British Library's collection and elsewhere. Click on any title to find the full lyrics and my account of the case that inspired them. And, if you haven't already read it, do take a look at my background essay describing the London industry which produced these songs.

Part One (April 2010)

Mary Arnold, The Female Monster

The Execution of Nathaniel Mobbs

Mrs Dyer, The Old Baby-Farmer

The Gallows Child

Part Two (June 2010)

The Life and Trial of Palmer

The Silent Grove

The Liverpool Lodger

The Unnatural Murder

Part Three (Oct 2010)

Murder at Westmill

Streams of Crimson Blood

The Murdered Maid

Cruel Lizzie Vickers

Part Four (Feb 2011)

Jones and Harwood

The Sister and the Serpent

Jealous Annie

The Foreigner's Downfall

Bonus songs

The Tyburn Jig

Corkery's Farewell

The Gallows Ballads Project: Musicians wanted
If you'd like to help PlanetSlade bring these gallows ballads back to life as fully-performed songs, why not set one of the 16 ballads' public domain lyrics to your own music and record yourself singing and playing it?
   Any music you write would remain your own property, of course, as would the recording itself, and I'll make sure that all writers and performers are fully credited.
   There's no money in this for anyone - least of all me - but I think it's a worthwhile project nonetheless. There are several ways to get your song heard:

1) Send a digital recording to me, and I'll post it online with the other free downloads listed in PlanetSlade Music, together with a link from your chosen song's page here.

2) Post the recording online at your own site or the hosting service of your choice. Let me know where it can be found, and I'll add a link telling people where to go. Please remember that some hosting sites allow access to members only.

3) Film yourself performing the song, and post the video to YouTube. Once again, I'd be delighted to add a link here telling people where to find it.

4) Write your own song from scratch, based on the true story that inspired one of the ballads, then follow whichever of the above options suits you.

   Check PlanetSlade Music for a taste of what I have in mind. I spent all of 2012 recruiting contributors for this little project, and I've now accumulated at least one new recording of each of the 16 original ballads I selected. You can find links to all this audio on the PlanetSlade page above, or hear the whole "album" in the Soundcloud set here.
   The styles people have chosen range all the way from unaccompanied traditional folk singing via acoustic guitar ballads to full-on rock workouts with a whole band.
   Contributors so far include Sean Breadin of Rapunzel & Sedayne, The Jetsonics, Pete Morton, Fred Smith, Tim Radford, Big Al Whittle and South County.
   Three continents are represented in all, and at least one of the songs has already made it into the contributing band's live set. None of the tracks have achieved a commercial release yet, but I dare say a couple will make that leap eventually.
   We've already got multiple versions of several songs up there, including Nathaniel Mobbs and The Murdered Maid, so please don't feel you're too late to make your own contribution.
   I'm all for people adding second, third or even fourth interpretations of a single song, using as many different musical genres as we can muster. Many, many thanks to all those who've already taken part.
   You can reach me with any questions here