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Victorian Baby Farming

Baby farming was a horrific Victorian practice which took advantage of mothers unable to care for their children and desperate to give them a better life.

Unmarried mothers had no support

The practice occurred in an era when contraception was limited, abortion was illegal, and illegitimate children were looked down on. The 1834 Poor Laws regarded poverty and illegitimacy as moral issues. The law was designed to restore female morality and stimulate thrifty, industrious workers. They contained a Bastardy clause that absolved the reputed father of responsibility for his child, which left many unmarried mothers socially and economically victimised and unable to provide for their children.

Unwanted children

Murdering of unwanted children by their mothers typically resulted in the death penalty. Most of the reported cases took place in London but there were no doubt incidents in every large city, including Southampton and Portsmouth, where a transient population and appalling living conditions were evident.

Some mothers probably sold their babies to childless couples. Others were fostered or adopted for a few pounds. Unmarried mothers were often so desperate that they answered newspaper adverts placed by seemingly reputable people….the so called baby farmers who in return for payment would find new families for unwanted babies.

Murder by baby farmers

Sadly, a few baby farmers found killing the babies less arduous than caring and finding adoptive families for them. Murder gave a quick profit, without the need to provide childcare at their own expense. Many of these babies died of malnutrition, neglect and abuse. In an age of high infant mortality, deaths of babies and small children were quite common and attracted little attention. Where a baby’s body was found, it was usually impossible to trace the mother.


By the end of the 19th Century, legislation was being brought in to protect against baby farming. The Infant Life Protection Act of 1897 and the Children’s Act of 1908 gave local authorities more powers to investigate baby farmers. These were later followed by legislation to regulate adoption and fostering.


Adapted from ‘Education Spot – Baby Farming’, an article by Tony Knight first published in the Hampshire Family Historian, Vol 34 No 1, June 2007.
This article is strictly for non-commercial use and remains the copyright of both the Author and the Hampshire Genealogical Society. It must not be copied, published or reproduced in any form whatever without the express written permission of the Society.
©Hampshire Genealogical Society 2007, 2009 ES0002.pdf

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