The Baby Farmer of Reading

The Baby Farmer of Reading

On April 2nd, 1896 my grandmother, Clara Barber, was weeding the front garden in Mayo Road, Willesden. Her three-year-old son and his younger brother were playing in the fresh air where she could keep an eye on them. She said ‘Good afternoon’ to an elderly lady who was staying with her daughter, Polly Palmer, next door at number 76. My grandmother noticed that the woman was carrying a carpet bag, which appeared to be quite heavy. Thinking nothing of it, grandma finished the weeding before taking the boys indoors to prepare dinner for her husband, who would soon be home from his work as a builder.

What my grandmother did not know was that the carpet bag held the bodies of two murdered babies, along with some bricks for added weight.

The woman was Mrs Amelia Dyer. When she passed my grandmother’s house she was on her way to Reading, where she herself lived. She took a bus to Paddington before boarding a train. From Reading station she walked to a secluded spot she knew well at Caversham Lock. Here she forced the bag between the railings and into the Thames.

Three days earlier, unbeknown to Mrs Dyer, a package had been retrieved from the same stretch of river by a bargeman. It contained the body of a little girl, later identified as Helena Fry. The tiny corpse was securely wrapped in paper, which had attached to it a label from Temple Meads station, Bristol. There was faint writing on the paper and with the help of a microscope the police deciphered a name – Mrs Thomas – and a Reading address. Thomas was one of many aliases used by Dyer as a baby farmer – and murderer.

Death certificates

Born in Bristol in 1837, Dyer, whose mentally ill mother had died when she was ten, trained first as a corset-maker and then as a nurse. Following the death of her husband in 1869, and left with a young daughter, she turned to baby farming as a more lucrative and convenient means to earn a living as a single mother. A decade later a doctor, alarmed at the number of death certificates he had issued for babies who had died under her roof, alerted the authorities. Dyer pleaded guilty to neglecting one of the recently deceased children and was sentenced to six months hard labour.

The body of Helena Fry is unwrapped at Caversham. From ‘Famous Crimes’, Police Budget Edition, 1905. Evans Skinner Crime Archive
The body of Helena Fry is unwrapped at Caversham. From ‘Famous Crimes’, Police Budget Edition, 1905. Evans Skinner Crime Archive
The sentence resulted in a mental breakdown and suicide attempts. Nevertheless, on her release in 1879 she resumed her morbid career. Now, instead of alerting the doctors after the infants died apparently natural deaths (in fact starved and overdosed on opium linctus), she resorted to secret and swifter methods of murder.

As the birth of children out of wedlock carried such a stigma, there was no shortage of mothers eager to make a private and confidential arrangement for the safe-guarding of their illegitimate offspring. Dyer advertised her services in several newspapers, presenting herself in a variety of ways. One young woman, Evelina Edith Marmon, who wrote to Dyer, at that time calling herself Mrs Harding, received this reply regarding her daughter, Doris:

Dear Madam,
In reference to your letter of adoption of a child, I beg to say that I shall be glad to have a dear little baby girl, one that I can bring up and call my own. First, I must tell you that we are plain, homely people in fairly good circumstances. I have a good and comfortable home. We are out in the country and sometimes I am alone a great deal. I don’t want a child for money’s sake, but for company and home comfort. Myself and husband are dearly fond of children. I have no child of my own. A child with me will have a good home and a mother’s love and care. We belong to the Church of England … I hope to hear from you again.

Evelina queried the cost for taking Doris. Dyer wrote back: ‘I will take her entirely at the sum of £10. She will be no further expense to her family.’ She was also told that she could come to visit the baby: ‘I shall be pleased to make you welcome’ and that there was a lovely orchard ‘opposite our front door’. Dyer added: ‘PS–I think Doris a very pretty name. I am sure she ought to be a pretty child.’

An arrangement was duly made and Dyer travelled to the Midlands to collect the baby. Evelina was surprised that ‘Mrs Harding’ was a hefty female (she weighed over 15 stone), around 60, with a grim face and a knob of grey hair protruding from her hat. The young mother wrapped Doris in a shawl, kissed her goodbye and handed her to her new guardian.

On her return to Mayo Road and to her own daughter, Dyer proceeded to strangle Doris Marmon with white dress-making tape, which she wound twice around the baby’s neck and tied tightly. The next day, April 1st, Dyer received a new charge at Mayo Road, a baby boy, Harry Simmons. She had no more tape, so untied that used to kill Doris to dispose of Harry in the same way.

After the body of Helena Fry was discovered in Caversham Lock, the river was dredged there and the bag containing the bodies of Doris and Harry was recovered. Evelina had the unimaginable task of identifying her daughter just 11 days after handing her over to Dyer.

In Reading, aware that Dyer might swiftly move on under another alias, the police sent a decoy to Dyer’s lodgings. When she opened the door they raided the place. Although no bodies were found, the stench of rotting corpses was overwhelming. They found pawn tickets for baby clothes, dressmaking tape, telegrams regarding adoption arrangements, receipts for advertisements and letters from mothers enquiring about the well-being of their children.

Madame Tussauds

On May 22nd, 1896 Amelia Dyer appeared at the Old Bailey and pleaded guilty to the murder of Doris Marmon. Dyer’s daughter Polly gave evidence that ensured her mother’s conviction. It took the jury less than five minutes to return a guilty verdict and Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison on June 10th. The police concluded that in the previous few months at least 20 children had been murdered by Dyer. It is not known exactly how many babies she killed in total but it has been suggested it could be as many as 200.

When my grandmother learned of the gruesome acts that had taken place next door, she was very upset. She loved babies and had a further six herself, although three of her children died in infancy. She gave birth to her last child, Myrtle, my mother, in 1909, when she was 47 years old. My mother told me the story of Amelia Dyer when I was a schoolgirl collecting family stories for a project. One year our school visited Madame Tussauds and I remember the shock as I encountered a life sized figure in a long black dress, a cap on her head, and a label captioned ‘AMELIA DYER’, with an explanatory note of her crimes. I remember leaning over and touching her dress and then telling my teacher the extraordinary tale handed down the generations about that day in 1896.

Barbara Butcher is the author of The Other Canal (Troubadour, 2011).


Hamish. Click the newspaper picture. Caption reads “Dyer is sentenced to death at the Old Bailey. From ‘Famous Crimes’, Police Budget Edition, 1905. Evans Skinner Crime Archive”

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