Skip to main content

‘Unloved and undisciplined’: Nineteenth-Century Baby-Farming and the Demonisation of Working-Class Mothers Across the Ages


This post continues our series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead’, an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Jennifer Speakman, focuses on fears about baby farming and the blaming of working-class mothers in nineteenth-century Britain.

[content warning - the death of babies and young children; child neglect and abuse]

The late nineteenth century saw an apparent ‘epidemic’ of child infanticide sweeping the nation and causing anxiety over how working-class women treated mothering responsibilities. The term ‘baby-farming’ first came into use in the late 1860s and was used to describe how a woman would be paid to care for children who were not her own, with the aim of finding them a permanent family. Women were forced into giving up their children due to the constant scrutiny their bodies faced in the nineteenth century, with the idea of an unmarried woman ‘bearing a bastard’ far worse than abandoning the baby. Mothers wilfully handed over their infants to these baby farmers with the hope of finding the child a better life, though this was unfortunately not always the case. In reality, the money paid by the mother was used to care for the child and to support the carer until it ran out, after which the child was often neglected, malnourished or succumbed to an illness due to poor living conditions.

This hardship was the context in which Margaret Waters, an infamous baby farmer, lived and worked in the late nineteenth century. Following the death of her husband and multiple failed attempts at other avenues for employment, including a failed business startup and a career as a landlady, Waters concluded that caring for children and passing them on to other families was the best way to make a steady income. However, she quickly became overwhelmed with children and many died from illness and neglect.

Newspapers in this period treated the issue of baby-farming and working-class motherhood with differing degrees of sympathy towards the individual. The Illustrated Police News on 16th June 1870 wrote of her trial, describing her crimes and using detailed language to fundamentally destroy her reputation and to criticise forms of working-class motherhood. This paper did not leave out any explicit details of Waters’ conduct and described the state of the children with the intent to socially condemn her and any other woman partaking in baby-farming:

the infant, which Mr Cohen identified “appeared like nothing but skin and bones.” It was in filthy condition and was wrapped in dirty clothes.’

‘witness then went into the front kitchen and found five other infants, from about three weeks to a month old. They were huddled together, and covered over with clothing, all of them dirty and emaciated, and two of them apparently dying.’

Her house was clearly unclean and the children were in a bad state. But how much of this was journalistic hyperbole and how much was the reality of the poor, working-class home? Newspapers often used details of cleanliness as language devices to frame the working class as uncaring and cruel towards children. Ruth Homrighaus suggests that motherhood and household management in the nineteenth century were intrinsically linked, with a clean house associated with a loving and caring attitude towards domestic responsibilities. As a detail in this article, it successfully but unjustly establishes Waters’ image as a malevolent, unmotherly figure, when an unkempt household was an unfortunate factor of a poor, unmarried woman’s life, unsupported by a husband and unqualified for skilled work.

The Cheltenham Chronicle took a slightly different angle when reporting on Waters’ confession and execution on 11thOctober 1870, appearing more sympathetic to the issue of child infanticide and Waters’ unfortunate circumstances:

 ‘at this time she alleges that she treated the children as well as her circumstances allowed.’

‘from what he could judge, she had no intention of murdering any of the children; but they died off, as they might have been expected to die off, from diarrhoea, thrush, and convulsions, and when they died she callously got rid of their bodies as best she could when she became poor.’

Whilst this paper doesn’t suggest she was innocent of her crimes, it does allow for her social situation and personal hardship to be considered. It acknowledges the realities of child mortality in this period, with 149 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. However, this is after her execution, so the more lenient language suggests the feelings of an extinguished threat, with the death of a woman like Waters restoring safety and calming public anxiety.

However, with these papers being primarily aimed at middle-class audiences they are still not short of criticism for the working-class woman. Increasing news of infanticide and baby-farming scandals increased public anxiety over infant safety and brought forward the question of adequate childcare. The overall feeling was that the ideal of motherhood had been disrupted by working-class women who brought motherhood out from the private home into the public sphere, economising it with paid nurses and baby farmers. Rather than pitying women like Waters who were drawn to baby-farming as a last resort, which was only made possible by the unfortunate circumstances of other mothers, these papers demonised these women and conducted character assassinations to promote the domestic ideal of constant childcare for working-class mothers.

Classist and unfeeling attitudes towards working-class mothers persist today. In a collection of essays from 2006, Boris Johnson made assertions that children of working-class mothers were ‘unloved and undisciplined.’ Reflecting anxieties over nineteenth-century women entering the workplace and neglecting their children, leading to high infanticide rates and the growing business of baby-farming, Johnson’s comments parallel Victorian middle-class attitudes towards ideal motherhood. He suggested that:

“in families on lower incomes the women have absolutely no choice but to work, often with adverse consequences for family life and society as a whole – in that unloved and undisciplined children are more likely to become hoodies, Neets [not in education, employment or training] and mug you on the street corner.”

Clearly, concern over a woman’s place in the home and as a primary caregiver was not confined to the Victorian period and persist as critical factors in confining mothers to the home. Whilst adoption procedures are certainly stricter than in 1870 and child infanticide is significantly more uncommon, the marginalisation and stigmatisation of the working-class mother remains a concern of the high-profile middle-class rather than supporting social policy to ease pressures on living.