When I first walked into my early Victorian terraced cottage in North London more than a decade ago, I was so struck by its deep sense of peace that I laid my cheek against the wall.
Despite it being rather shabby and neglected, I felt there was something magical about it.
And it’s not just me. My friends feel it too. As did a friend, Father Dermot, when he came to bless my new home.
‘This cottage is already blessed,’ I remember him saying, as he sprinkled the Holy Water.
A Victorian mother and her child are pictured above. Adoption agencies did not exist, so these terrified mothers would pay seemingly respectable women who advertised baby-care services to take their children in and care for them — hopefully temporarily — or find them a new home
It’s hard to explain, but I felt that good lives had been lived here, that since it was built nearly two centuries ago, kind souls had and been happy and protected within its walls.
From the outside, it is a picture of homeliness, the kind of cottage a child would draw — painted white, with a bright blue door, two windows either side, two more on the first floor, chimneys and a picket fence.
Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered my perfect cottage had actually been a house of sorrow, that it hid a dark and terrible secret.
A secret I only discovered after a friend who was a keen historian offered to research its history, identifying the occupants who had lived there back to middle of the 19th century.
In those days, my friend revealed, the cottage comprised four small rooms upstairs, and a kitchen and sitting room downstairs.
Next to Hampstead Heath, it was part of a rural village. Cows and sheep pastured on the Heath, and there were more horses than houses.
The cottage had at one time been the home of a wine merchant and his family. At others, it was a lodging house with as many as a dozen people crammed in at any given time. And it appears to have been lodgings when the shocking story that scars this place occurred.
The most prolific was Amelia Dyer, a 56-year-old woman who lived in Reading. She began advertising for babies to look after in 1895. She was hanged in 1896. It is believed she may have killed more than 400 babies over 20 years
It is a story that highlights one of the great social scandals of Victorian Britain, known as ‘baby farming’ — a pitiless industry that led to countless tiny children being removed from their mothers only to face untold misery, illness and frequently death. In particular it is the story of one monstrous woman’s involvement in this ghoulish trade.
The facts emerged as a result of diligently scouring court and prison records and contemporary newspaper reports — and the more I came to know about it, the more horrified yet fascinated I became.
Just before Christmas in the year 1876, there was a fateful knock on my front door. A woman had arranged to come to the cottage to collect a five-month-old baby called Nellie Harris.
Nellie’s anxious mother, who had presumably come the cottage for the purpose, handed over her child — almost certainly along with some money — and the woman took the baby away.
We could find no record of who Nellie’s mother was, but what we do know is that, within months of being taken, Nellie had died in the grimmest of circumstances.
This stark fact alone was shocking enough. But worse, our researches revealed that Nellie was not the only child who died at the hands of the woman who took her away.
At the inquest into Nellie’s death the woman said she was called Charlotte Fisher Green and portrayed herself as a devout Christian.
In truth, she was a ‘baby farmer’, a merciless parasite in the gruesome fostering business that exploded around that time on the back of poverty and the shame and social stigma attached to having a child out of wedlock.
Babies were fostered out by desperate mothers who could not keep them.
Sometimes it was because they could not afford to, or because they feared becoming social outcasts if anyone discovered their child was illegitimate.
Adoption agencies did not exist, so these terrified mothers would pay seemingly respectable women who advertised baby-care services to take their children in and care for them — hopefully temporarily — or find them a new home.
The lucky children were well looked after and many went to loving families or to childless couples.
But thousands of others, like poor little Nellie — whose mother we think had responded to an advert placed by Charlotte Green, and had taken lodgings in my cottage in order to make the heartbreaking transaction with the baby farmer — were neglected, starved, succumbed to disease or murdered.
The most unscrupulous baby farmers demanded money up front rather than a monthly payment because it meant they profited if the child died, preferably quickly.
Some of them dosed the infants with the lethal opiate laudanum or morphine to keep them quiet while they starved them to death. Others simply strangled them and disposed of the bodies.
In Nellie’s case, the inquest in June 1877 — coroners’ inquests for child deaths did not always take place, but there was one on this occasion — found no evidence of violence.
It revealed that Green took Nellie from my cottage in Hampstead to live at her home in Gravesend, Kent, over 40 miles away.
‘The child was then five months old: it was very delicate and had a cough,’ she told the court.
At some point in March or April she said she called the doctor but it was too late. Before Nellie died Green had her baptised — the baby had not been christened, almost certainly because she was illegitimate. The coroner returned a verdict of death by natural causes. Which, on the surface, suggests Green was innocent.
Yet there was plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest otherwise. She claimed in court that she had seven ‘nurse children’ under her charge — ranging from less than 12 months to six years old. But the inquest was told there were at least 12 children in Green’s care, six of them sleeping in two tiny beds in the kitchen, six on the floor.
The doctor who attended Nellie shortly before her death reported that he found she was emaciated, that she had a large ulcer under her left ear and her left eye had ‘completely gone’ from a skin infection.
Her stomach ‘was very small’ and her lungs were riddled with tuber-culosis. Green may have evaded justice on that occasion.
But the death of another child confirmed her cruelty. Two years after Nellie’s inquest she was charged with the manslaughter of 18-month-old Ada Collynes, who was also being cared for in the house in Gravesend.
By now news had filtered out that five children had died at her home within 12 months — and the death of Ada caused a sensation. A local newspaper headlined the trial as The Baby Farming Case Of Gravesend, and the court was packed, with hundreds of people outside baying for justice.
Ada’s parents were married but had fallen on hard times. Mr Collynes’ business had faltered and his wife had gone into service, pretending she was a single woman to get the job.
They paid Mrs Green £2 8 shillings — the equivalent of £290 today — each month to care for their children Arthur, three, Ada and six-month-old Percy.
Green wrote them regular reassuring letters saying ‘the darling children are all well’, even as Ada lay lice-ridden and dying.
The courtroom heard from Dr John Henry Gramshaw, the doctor who finally attended poor Ada, that she had lice ‘crawling out of open sores on her head’. In 35 years as a doctor, he said he had never witnessed such filth or squalor.
‘On entering the house, our noses were assailed with a fearful smell. It must have been the most shameful neglect anyone could conceive,’ he testified.
Baby Ada’s body was in ‘a dreadful condition, very emaciated’. Her legs and forearms were swollen, her eyes sunken. He could count each of her tiny ribs. Indeed she was so malnourished that he estimated this girl, who was nearly two-years-old, weighed just 12 lb.
The doctor said the seven or eight other children in the baby farm were all filthy and covered in ‘vermin’.
He found five infants in one bed, three at the top end, two at the bottom, the linen leaping with lice and soaked with urine.
There was another baby in a cot, and one hidden in a blanket behind a chair. He said he suspected there were even more children secreted in that hellhole.
Green’s husband, a bricklayer called James Martin, lived in a house a few minutes walk from her home, yet he claimed in court he knew nothing of his wife’s sideline.
Yet he was surely in on the vile business and it was likely that his wife joined him at home at night, leaving the children on their own, drugging them with laudanum to ensure they slept.
Green was sentenced to 18 months’ hard labour for the manslaughter of Ada ‘by neglect, starvation and other ill-treatment’.
It seems a shamefully light sentence given the horrors she inflicted. This was an age of shocking infant mortality and one in which the unscrupulous could get away with murder — quite literally — where children were concerned.
For Green was hardly the only woman to ply this despicable trade. The author of an undercover investigation sent a letter to The Times in 1870, which concluded: ‘My conviction is that children are murdered in scores by these women, that adoption is only a fine phrase for slow or sudden death.’
It was a view borne out by the fact that, in the 40 years after the letter was published, no fewer than eight baby farmers were hanged across Britain.
From the outside, it is a picture of homeliness, the kind of cottage a child would draw — painted white, with a bright blue door, two windows either side, two more on the first floor, chimneys and a picket fence. Imagine my horror, then, when I discovered my perfect cottage had actually been a house of sorrow, that it hid a dark and terrible secret
The most prolific was Amelia Dyer, a 56-year-old woman who lived in Reading. She began advertising for babies to look after in 1895.
Within a year, the corpse of a 15-month-old girl was recovered from the Thames.
Helena Fry’s body was wrapped in brown paper bearing the name of a Mrs Thomas — a pseudonym Dyer used — along with her address.
A month later, two more tiny corpses were discovered and in total, seven dead babies were retrieved from the waters.
All of them had been strangled by Dyer who confessed after she was arrested. She was hanged in 1896. It is believed she may have killed more than 400 babies over 20 years.
Another notorious baby farmer was Margaret Waters, a 35-year-old widow who placed adverts in local newspapers in South London claiming that a married couple were looking for a baby to adopt.
A father whose daughter had an illegitimate child paid Waters £2 — £240 today — to take the child. But later he was contacted by police, who had found his grandchild, along with ten other children, barely alive.
Waters had drugged the children with laudanum and starved them. Five of the babies, including his grandchild, later died.
Annie Tooke was condemned to death after charging a £12 downpayment (£1,440 today) and 5s (£350) per week to look after a child whose headless torso was later found in the Thames in 1879.
The so-called Finchley Baby Farmers — Annie Walters and Amelia Sach, who took in expectant mothers and offered to raise their children in their house in Finchley North London — were convicted of the murder of a three-month-old boy and are believed to have killed more than 20 children.
The truth is Green, the woman who allowed little Nellie to die after the baby was taken from my cottage, got off lightly.
According to newspaper reports, when she was sentenced after the death of baby Ada Collynes in Gravesend, the crowds cheered and chased after her down the street as she was transferred from court to prison.
But she was never held to account for the five other infants who perished during that year in her home.
So vulnerable, so young, these children suffered a terrible fate and yet it is some small consolation that their names — Minnie Godden, Florence Green, Dora Creig, Clara Cooper and, of course, Nellie Harris — were recorded for posterity.
Their short lives were acknowledged at least, they weren’t just disposable fodder for this hideous trade. It somehow serves to make their innocence all the more poignant.
There is so much I don’t know about little Nellie — why she was given away, who her mother was or why she was lodging at my house. Was the landlady complicit in the baby farmer trade, or simply a kind woman who had offered a place to stay to an anxious woman and her baby?
Whatever the truth, my cottage would have been the perfect rural hideaway for Nellie’s mother to have her child in secret — pregnant single mothers often concealed their swelling bump, then slipped away from their everyday lives to give birth before handing their child over for ‘adoption’.
Nellie’s mother must have hoped she was delivering her child into a happier life by the beach in Gravesend. Tragically, our research has shown she was woefully mistaken.
But do I believe this tale of sorrow and death has cast an indelible stain upon my home? No, not for one moment.
For as Father Dermot said, this cottage is filled with goodness. And I now imagine little Nellie’s soul flitting about my home — in the belief it was here, at least, that she enjoyed comfort in the arms of her mother.
Research by Sue Connolly