Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent

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Detective Burgess and detective-sergeant Chide were looking for an infant when they called at a house in Olney Street, Walworth, south London. They had presumably received a tip-off that child was there or that someone in the house knew of its whereabouts. The person they questioned was Mary Boyle, a 30 year-old ‘ironer’ who was known by several other aliases (including Green, Kemp and Campbell).

They arrested Mary and took her back to the station to question her. There she was placed in an identity parade with other women and picked out by the mother of the missing baby, Mrs Mabel Reed. Boyle was then told she would be formally charged with stealing a six week-old male child and £3 in cash ‘by means of a trick’.

Mary vehemently denied the charge. She insisted instead that it had been given to her to adopt. Then where was it, the inspector asked her. ‘I will not tell you if you keep me here for 25 years’, she replied, adding ‘why do you call this stealing?’

The case came up before the Lambeth police magistrate in early May 1893. The police were still looking for the baby and Mary Boyle was still refusing to tell them where it was or admit she had taken it.

Inspector Harvey stated that: ‘You told this lady [Mrs Reed] that you had been confined with a dead baby seven weeks ago, and that you were the wife of a tea merchant at Eastbourne, and that you wanted the child to adopt, so your friends would think it was your own’.  Mary responded by saying that the child was well cared cared by a family in Leicester.

The child remained missing however, al the police had managed to find were its clothes, and a search was ongoing which would now presumably switch to Leicester. One can only imagine the emotional state of the mother. The police asked for, and were granted, a remand so that they could continue their investigation. The magistrate informed Mary that she ‘stood in a very serious position’.

The Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury reported the case on the 13 May, using almost exactly the same text as The Standard, but adding the detail that the police that called on Mary had no warrant, and that initially she had refused to go with them, and that the family the baby was placed in at Leicester was that of a church minister.

The story has a happy ending I am glad to say. The child was found, not in Leicester but in a ditch in ‘a lonely lane’ near Gravesend in Kent. It was taken to the nearby workhouse at Hastings and, because of the widespread press reporting of a missing child, the police were informed. Mabel Reed then traveled to Hastings to identify her son, who was, according to the papers, ‘none the worse for his exposure’.

Having reunited mother and baby the investigation now turned back to Mary Boyle and her initial crime. A few days later the press reported that this was not Mary’s first office; in fact she had already served a prison sentence for abducting children in the past.

On the 21 May, with story making national news, readers were told that Mary had again appeared before at Lambeth Police Court. Mr Sims  led the prosecution on behalf of he Treasury and he stated that he found show that Boyle could be tied to ‘three cases in which the prisoner had obtained children’. He explained how Mrs Reed, now described as a ‘governess’,  had answered the following advertisement placed by  Boyle:

‘We should dearly love to adopt your little darling entirely as our own, and have it registered in our own name, it would have the most loving care, a good Christian home, and every care and attention’.

Mabel Reed met with Mary Boyle and the latter told her that her husband was a wealthy tea merchant and that they would give the child a good life and name it Arthur after her own father. She was desperate it seemed, having (as was stated earlier) lost her own child just seven weeks earlier.

Reed was convinced and so must have had her own problems in keeping her baby (no husband is mentioned so perhaps she was a widow and the child illegitimate?) and accompanied Mary to London Bridge station. There Mary asked her for £3 to buy clothes for the child, which she gave her. She didn’t seem to wonder at why a wealthy merchant’s wife would need to ask her for money for baby clothes for a child she was giving up, however…

The story captured the imagination of the reading public and lots of letters were sent to the press regarding ‘lost’ or ‘adopted’ babies and children. Lloyd’s Weekly then ran a column on the ‘business’ of adoption and baby-stealing, mentioning that several infants had been found ‘in out-of-the-way places near Maidstone’ (which is also in Kent).

Along with the letters received by the press were several at the Olney Street house and other addresses known to have been occupied by Boyle. These apparently came from other distressed mothers (or would-be adoptive mothers) who were using their offspring. One said:

‘How many more times am I to write to you to know what has become of my little Harry?’

Mary’s landlady was also reported to have aired her suspicions about her tenant. When Mary had retried home after a few days without her own child she had enquired what had happened to it. Mary told her that she didn’t want her husband to know about it, ‘so I have put it away where it will be looked after’. The pair had then had a conversation concerning the discovery of a baby’s dead body in the Grand Surrey Canal, which Mary thought was awful, saying ‘if I did such a thing I should never be able to rest for  a minute’.  She also reported that Boyle had hung religious tracts up on her walls, ‘one of which she committed to memory every day’.

The article concluded by saying that Mary was currently in Holloway Prison under  examination by the chief medical officer there, Dr Gilbert.  The police were still investigating and the notion that Mary Boyle was not in full command of her mind was clearly an avenue they were considering.

Mary was brought up at Lambeth again on 23 May; the same story was repeated (so anyone as yet unfamiliar with he case could catch up), and she was again remanded. On this occasion two other young women gave evidence very similar to Mabel Reed’s. One was a servant and said she had met Mary Boyle at Waterloo station and had named over £2 for clothes for her child that was being giving up for adoption. In this case Mary had suggested her husband was a minister in the Band of Hope, a Temperance organisation that worked with young children. The other was told Mary was the wife of a deacon. It was also feared that in these cases the children were dead, and as she left the dock at Lambeth Mary was hissed by the watching gallery.

Victorian Britain had already witnessed several ‘baby farming’ scandals, this case (dubbed the ‘traffic in babies’) seemed poised to shock the public just as deeply.

At the end of the month the press reported that another child had been found alive, in the infirmary at Greenwich. Mary again appeared in court and was one again remanded for further inquiry. It was also reported that Mary Boyle told the police that the two children belong to Ms Kent and Miss White, (the servants that came to lambeth to give obedience on the 23 May), were indeed dead. When she appeared again in early June Reynolds’ Newspaper reported that the court was so crowded with women and children it resembled a nursery. Mary was still being held at Holloway and the case continued.

By July several women had testified to having been ‘conned’ in to giving up their babies by Mary Boyle. As the case against her was focused on the discovery of the child at Gravesend she was eventually tried at the Maidstone Assizes on 14 July 1893. She was convicted of ‘obtaining a number of children by fraud, and afterwards abandoning them’. The judge sent her to prison for 14 years.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, May 09, 1893; Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 14, 1893; Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper , Sunday, May 21, 1893; Daily News, Wednesday, May 24, 1893; Daily News, Saturday, July 15, 1893; Issue 14754. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.]

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One thought on “Baby trafficking in Victorian London and Kent

  1. That’s quite a story. Hopefully a case like that would never reach such proportions, today, in the UK anyway. It says a lot about the poverty of the time.
    Thanks.

    Like

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