An ongoing case of child abduction

Dipping into the pages of the nineteenth-century press in the way I do means that sometimes you come across a story part of the way through. This is a blog of snapshots; moments in history captured from the cases that contemporary journalists or editors thought worthy of attention. Occasionally it is possible to follow these up through the system to the Old Bailey, but often they simply disappear. This is the nature of working with this sort of primary source; we are at the mercy of the editor’s knife or the archivist’s need for space. History can only be written from the material that survives and that can be quite problematic – just ask anyone who studies ancient history!

In June 1893 the law writer of the The Illustrated Police News (not it must be said an official police publication) attended Lambeth Police Court to follow the case of a woman accused of abducting children. It was a case that was bound to have shocked and concerned the paper’s readership, just as it would have done today.

Mary Boyle – a 30 year-old woman from Walworth who also went under the names of Green, Campbell and Kemp – was charged of stealing a six year-old child by ‘means of a trick’. The child’s mother, Mabel Louisa Read, had also reported that the accused had taken ¬£3 from her. The police investigation had now uncovered several more victims and this hearing was convened to listen to their testimonies.

Alfred McKinder, ‘a bright little boy’ told the court that he saw a woman carrying a child wrapped in ”long clothes’. Some fifteen minutes later he saw the woman again but without the baby. Mary Jefferies who, like Alfred lived in Maidstone, reported hearing a baby crying as she walked down a lane. She soon found a child wrapped in a cloth marked ‘J’ lying in the grass.

The caretaker of the Duke Street Board School in Deptford also found a small child lying at the foot of the stairs of the school. This child belonged to a Matilda Kent who had given her into Boyle’s care (it is not stated why).

The Detective investigating the case said that Boyle had asked him ‘have you found any more babies?” He replied that he hadn’t but said ‘we have found two more mothers’ these were a Miss White and Miss Kent.

Herein lies the probable explanation for the case. If these women had had their children out of wedlock they pay have been paying Boyle to care for them. The Victorian period witnessed several high profile case of ‘baby farming’ (the most notorious being the case of Amelia Dyer who was hanged in 1896). Children were given up to be raised and looked after by women such as Dyer for a fee. This was an early form of fostering or adoption but was unregulated and dangerous. Unmarried mothers were driven to it by the stain of illegitimacy and by the desperation of not being able to support their children.

When Mary Boyle was told of the appearance of ‘two more mothers’ she baldy countered, ‘those two babies are dead’. She later changed her story and said one child was alive but in the Greenwich workhouse. The case was adjourned and Boyle remanded.

No one named Mary Boyle, Green or Campbell was tried at Old Bailey for child theft or murder. She may have been tried in Kent (as the offences or some of them, happened there). So this remains unfinished and perhaps like some of the mothers, we may never know what happened to those missing babies.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc , Saturday, June 17, 1893]

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