Margaret Waters: A Convenient Villain
Infanticide, Baby Farming, and the Status of Women in Victorian England
2012 NEH Seminar for School Teachers
Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain
At 9:00 am on October 11, 1870 Margaret Waters, a 34-year old widow and convicted murderer, calmly approached the gallows at Horsemonger Lane in London. Newspaper accounts of that sunny autumn morning described the scene in similar ways. Witnesses said Waters nearly stumbled as she started up the stairs to the platform, but politely refused the warden’s offer of assistance, climbing the steps alone to greet her executioner. There were said to be no tears or hysterics. Rather she whispered a heartfelt prayer before bending her head to accept the noose, struggling only briefly as she plunged to her death, neck snapping with an audible crack. The few witnesses looked away; her brother fell to his knees on the muddy ground, face wet with tears.1
Newspaper accounts of the execution were oddly sympathetic to Waters, especially given her previous treatment by the press. Deemed the “Brixton Baby-Farmer,” Waters was portrayed as a monster in newspapers across the Britain. Cartoons demonized her, making her look grotesque, misshapen, and crone-like. One tabloid described her as having, “a large heavy jaw, puffed flabby face, and exceedingly dull appearance.”2 To the reporters lined up to watch her execution, the diminutive, attractive woman who walked to her death with dignity must have come as a shock. The stories and images that appeared in the days following her execution portrayed Waters in a far more positive light, describing her as dignified, poised, and repentant. Her case, its treatment by the press, and the public outrage surrounding it reveals deeply conflicted attitudes toward women in the decades following the industrial revolution in Britain.
Margaret Waters was the first of eight women to be executed in Britain for “baby farming,” the practice of informally adopting infants in exchange for money. Waters was convicted and executed for murdering John Walter Cowen, an illegitimate child in her care. The child’s grandfather, desperate to prevent his daughter from being stigmatized as an unwed mother, paid Waters four pounds to secretly “adopt” the infant. At her trial, Waters admitted Cowen was only one of about forty infants she had adopted for cash over the previous three years.
Baby farming was actually quite common in Britain in the years following the industrial revolution. There was an entire section in most major newspapers where women like Waters could place an advertisement offering, “to take children in to nurse,” generally for a payment of 3-10 pounds. Contraception was virtually nonexistent at the time, and abortion was illegal and potentially life threatening. Social changes resulting from industrialization, including less settled courtship and later marriages, contributed to a surge in illegitimate births.3 The 1834 Poor Law Amendment, intended to stigmatize single motherhood, prohibited outdoor relief to unwed mothers and also placed sole financial responsibility for the care of illegitimate children on mothers.4 Few private charities provided help to “fallen women,” nor would anyone knowingly employ a pregnant woman. An unwed mother from the working class had few viable options: she could hide her pregnancy and kill the child after giving birth, go to the poorhouse where her newborn child would almost certainly die, or pay a woman like Waters to take the child in and care for it. For many women the later option seemed the most humane.
Baby farmers like Waters played an important role at a time before child protection agencies or laws regulating adoption. For an affordable fee, baby farmers would care for newborn infants, sometimes re-adopting them for a much higher fee to wealthy couples unable to conceive. This service allowed the biological mother to continue life without the stigma and financial burden of raising an illegitimate child alone. Sometimes, however, baby farmers found it cheaper to quietly kill the infants in their care, a reality many new mothers would almost certainly have recognized. Some women may have preferred a stranger smother the infant or give it an overdose of opium than bear the guilt of killing her own child.
Infanticide in Britain reached an all-time high in the later half of the 19th century.5 In 1870 alone, 276 infants were found dead in the streets of London.6 Children under the age of one formed more than 60% of all homicide victims at a time when they made up only 2 to 3% of the population of England.7 This epidemic of infanticide led to a great public outcry and was the subject of a lengthy investigation by the British Medical Journal (BMI) in the late 1860s. The full force of the public’s moral outrage surrounding infanticide eventually became focused on a single, unlikely target: Margaret Waters.
Margaret Waters was tried and executed for the “willful murder” of John Walter Cowen. Although newspaper accounts of the infant’s death are contradictory and exaggerated, it is possible to piece together a likely sequence of events based on the trial transcript of the Waters case. According to witness testimony, it seems that Waters agreed to take Cowen into her care for the sum of four pounds. A police sergeant named Richard Relf, who had staked out the lying-in establishment where Cowen was born, traced the infant to Waters’s house. He then demanded to be admitted to the home, where he discovered seven sickly infants living in “filthy” conditions. He immediately arrested Waters on the charge of “willful neglect,” and had the infants removed to a workhouse, where six of the seven died, including Cowen, several weeks later.8 Only Cowen’s grandfather was willing to come forward to testify, so Waters was charged with only one count, instead of six counts, of murder.9
Based on the trial transcript, it appears highly unlikely Waters intentionally murdered Cowen or any of the other children in her care. During the course of the trial, Waters was able to produce receipts showing she paid a doctor on several occasions to administer medical care to the children who were ill. A doctor had been called twice for Cowen’s care alone. It seems unlikely she would pay costly medical fees for a child she intended to murder. She also provided evidence of daily deliveries of fresh milk for the infants’ bottles. Although she admitted some of the infants died in her care, and that she had sometimes been unable to afford proper burials for these children, she maintained she had done the best she could within her means to provide decent care for the children until they could be found permanent homes. She also maintained it was unfair that she should be held responsible for the death of Cowen when he died several weeks after being removed from her care. A housemaid testified Waters had a gentle and caring demeanor with the children, particularly Cowen, cuddling with him often and even sleeping beside him to provide comfort. She said the children were dirty because Waters feared bathing the children would make them even sicker.10 In addition, following the postmortem examination of Cowen’s body, the coroner initially ruled his death manslaughter, which was later changed to murder only after the story was published in the newspapers. It seems the moral outrage over the epidemic of infanticide, in conjunction with the BMI investigations linking infanticide and baby farming, transformed Waters into a scapegoat for society’s ills.
In reality Waters had much in common with the unwed mothers forced to surrender their newborn children. Her choices and freedom to determine her own fate were limited. Her once respectable, middle-class lifestyle was shattered when her husband died unexpectedly when she was only twenty-eight years old. With few skills, no husband, and virtually no employment opportunities, Waters had a savings of only 500 pounds on which to live the rest of her life. Finding herself in the same category as unwed mothers when it came to poor relief, Waters was forced to be creative in order to survive. Using her savings, she purchased a dozen sewing machines, hired some local women, and attempted to start a garment business out of her house. Unable to compete with cheap factory-produced clothing, Waters lost most of her initial investment and nearly all of her savings within her first year of business. She then began to rent out rooms in her house, but was unable to make enough to cover the rent and was forced to take out a loan. Within only two years of her husband’s death, Waters was spiraling deeper and deeper into debt. Increasingly desperate, when a pregnant border asked Waters to adopt her newborn baby in exchange for three pounds, Waters jumped at the opportunity. She later offered the same child to a wealthy family who desperately wanted children, tripling her profit. It was around this time she placed her first of 27 advertisements in Lloyd’s newspaper looking for children to “adopt.”11
Waters clearly did not become a baby farmer out of greed or malice. Rather it was one of the few livelihoods open to her when more reputable avenues were closed due to her gender, class, age, and widowed status. While the deaths of Cowen and the other children in her care were tragic, they may not necessarily have been the result of neglect and were almost certainly not the result of intentional murder. Based on the coroner’s report and medical testimony during the trial, Cowen, as well as the other five children, likely died of dehydration resulting from severe diarrhea (which is consistent with Waters’s own testimony and the testimony of her maid), the most common cause of infant mortality at the time.12 In addition, at least two times as many illegitimate children as legitimate children died before one year of age, often because they were deprived breast milk and were thus more susceptible to digestive problems.13 It is quite possible Waters provided the best possible care she could, often at great financial sacrifice, but the children died anyway.
Given the circumstances, Margaret Waters is an unlikely villain. A young widow with virtually no employment prospects may seem even more a victim of unforeseen circumstances than the unwed mothers she served. However unlikely, she was still described as “monstrous” and “mercenary” by the press.14 Mothers who intentionally killed their own babies, however, were generally regarded with far more sympathy than baby farmers like Waters, and rarely were they faced with criminal charges of any sort, much less a charge of murder.15 How these two groups were viewed illustrates important attitudes toward women in the decades following the industrial revolution in Britain.
Prior to the industrial revolution, women had access to greater equality of opportunity than was the case afterwards.16 Katrina Honeyman, in her work Women, Gender, and Industrialization in England, argues that in the preindustrial family unit all members contributed to the family’s survival. Women’s work in the preindustrial period was valued because it was necessary for survival. Women’s work was fluid and did not fall into clearly recognized occupations based on gender; the work done by women was varied and shifted according to the needs of the family. It was common for women to change occupations several times during their lives or to perform multiple jobs at once. As a result women’s identification with specific kinds of jobs was relatively weak. Work roles became increasingly gendered, Honeyman argues, as a result of industrialization. Over time, women had fewer choices in terms of employment and were largely confined to work within the domestic sphere. Women were systematically barred from men’s work and there was a corresponding “gendering of skill.”17
In time the association of domestic jobs with women gave rise to the ideology of separate spheres and the cult of domesticity. A woman’s sphere was believed to be within the home, where her virtue would be sheltered from contamination from “manly” pursuits like commerce and politics. While working class women might work in the least skilled and lowest paid factory jobs or as domestic servants, they too were expected to remain at home after marriage in order to care for the children. Tasks once completely by women that had contributed to the financial security of the family, such as the spinning and weaving of cloth, could now be completed more efficiently in factories. Unions, dominated by men, pressed for the passage of a “breadwinner’s wage,” allowing men to earn enough money to support a wife and family on one salary, thus further marginalizing the work done by women.18 Jan de Vries calls this “breadwinner-homemaker household” the advent of a “capitalist patriarchy.”19
The domestic sphere was believed to shelter women from temptation, thus giving them claim to a higher morality than men, who were believed corrupted by the pursuit of profit. Within the home a woman was expected to use her virtue to influence the behavior of her husband and children, shaping them into better citizens. Women came to be seen as sensitive, emotional, and prone to fits of hysteria, temperaments quite unsuitable for the demands of the world outside the home.20
It is this cult of domesticity that explains the difference in how unwed mothers who committed infanticide were treated versus baby farmers who committed similar or lesser crimes. Unwed mothers tended to be viewed as “fallen women,” seduced by unscrupulous men. The stereotype of women as overly emotional and prone to hysteria largely excused the actions of unwed mothers who killed their newborns in a fit of “postnatal mania.” A mother who killed her child was far more likely to be temporarily committed to an asylum for “puerperal hysteria” than tried for murder.21 Baby farmers like Waters, however, were often vilified for lesser crimes because they defied the stereotype of proper womanhood.22 Waters, already seen as unnatural because she never had children of her own, was also engaged in commerce. She was not portrayed as hysterical or overly emotional, but as cold and calculating—she, and other women like her, dared to step outside the women’s sphere and engage in the masculine pursuit of trade.
The ideology of separate spheres divided women and prevented the development of gender solidarity, delaying demands for suffrage and expanded rights for women. It also created a dangerous double standard that by which men and women were judged for engaging in similar behavior.
The case of Bartholomew Drouet illustrates the extent to which men and women were treated differently for committing similar crimes. Like Waters, Drouet created a baby-farming scheme to make money, only on a much larger scale. He housed 1,400 children on a farm outside London and made over 300 pounds a week. In 1849, 150 of the children in his care died of cholera within only a few days of each other. An investigation revealed the children were living in dirty, cramped conditions, and many were severely malnourished. Unlike Waters, Drouet could provide no evidence he ever provided medical treatment for the children when they became ill. Charles Dickens made Drouet the subject of four articles he wrote for the Examiner, in which he described Drouet’s farm as, “Brutally conducted, vilely kept…a disgrace to a Christian community and a stain upon a civilized land.”23
Waters and Drouet engaged in very similar crimes. Both took in unwanted children for cash payments. Both were accused of causing harm to the children in their care through willful neglect. Waters was charged with murder, even though the child she was accused of murdering died in a workhouse weeks after being removed from her care. Drouet was tried only for manslaughter, despite the fact 150 children died under his direct supervision. Drouet was acquitted and walked away from his trial a free man. Waters was found guilty and executed, her life over at 34 years of age.
Although their crimes were similar, Drouet and Waters were judged in dramatically different ways. The ideology of separate spheres provides the rationale for this double standard. Drouet’s crimes were excused, largely because it was expected for a man to be driven by profit and greed. Like Drouet, Waters used children to make a profit. A woman doing this, however, was a completely different matter. Waters’s actions were seen as degrading to the concept of motherhood and threatening to women’s claims of higher moral status. Interjecting profit into the natural, loving relationship between woman and child was considered perverse, because doing so shook the very foundations of the woman’s separate sphere of influence.
In the days following the conviction of Margaret Waters, her brothers, several members of parliament, and three jurors from her trial petitioned for her reprieve. The three jurors said they had wanted a lesser charge of manslaughter, but felt pressured to agree with the majority.24 The Home Secretary appeared indecisive. He seemed about to grant the reprieve, but the tide of public opinion ultimately convinced him otherwise.25 The public, whipped into a moral panic by the press, was hungry for her execution. They needed a convenient villain on whom to blame the alarming number of illegitimate births and the epidemic of infanticide. Addressing the underlying problems by reforming the poor laws, creating child welfare agencies, and expanding employment opportunities for women was far too controversial, costly, and time consuming.
It is ironic Waters was executed for the murder of a child society did not otherwise value. By taking in children no one else wanted, Waters provided a valuable service for a segment of the population deemed unworthy of charity. Unwed mothers and widows of the working class often had no one to turn to except each other. The trial and execution of Margaret Waters and the seven other women convicted of baby farming were nothing more than Victorian era witch hunts designed to blame the ills of society on its least powerful members.
De Vries, Jan. “The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution,” Journal of Economic History, vol. 54 (1994): 249-270.
Dickens, Charles. “The Paradise at Tooting,” The Examiner (London). 20 January 1849.
Haller, Dorothy L. “Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England,” Loyola Historical Journal, vol. 2 (1990): 5-11.
Hewwitt, Nancy. Women’s Activism and Social Change. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (1984).
Homrighaus, Ruth Ellen. “Wolves in Women’s Clothing: Baby-Farming and the British Medical Journal, 1860-1872,” Journal of Family History, vol. 25 (2001): 350-372.
Honeyman, Katrina. Women, Gender, and Industrialization in England, 1700-1870. London: MacMillan Press (2000).
Illustrated Police News (London). “Baby Farming—Portraits of the Victims,” 7 September 1870.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London). “Police Intelligence,” 26 November 1870.
------“Confession of Convict Waters,” 9 October 1870.
Old Bailey Proceedings (September 1870) “Trial of Margaret Waters,” Case 18700919-769. Accessible from: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org.
Reynold’s Newspaper (London). “The Execution of the Brixton Ogress,” 16 October 1870.
Rose, Lionel. Massacre of the Innocents: Infanticide in Britain 1800-1939. Abingdon, UK: Routledge Press (1986).
Times (London). “Baby Farming in London,” 7 October 1870.
-----. “Execution at Horsemonger Lane,” 12 October 1870.
-----. “Central Criminal Court,” 21 September 1870.