The right to life

by Chris Bertram on April 13, 2005

I had a conversation at the weekend where the topic of baby-farming came up. Unmarried mother in Victorian England? Can’t stand the social stigma? No problem, babies disposed of no questions asked …. The full details are in Dorothy Haller’s online essay “Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England”: . A sample quote:

bq. Baby farmers, the majority of whom were women, ran ads in newspapers which catered to working class girls. On any given day a young mother could find at least a dozen ads in the Daily Telegraph, and in the Christian Times, soliciting for the weekly, monthly, or yearly care of infants. All these advertisements were aimed at the mothers of illegitimate babies who were having difficulty finding employment with the added liability of a child. A typical ad might read:


NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT — The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and moderate allowance from her late husband’s friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent’s care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.

This ad may have been misleading to the general public, but it read like a coded message to unwed mothers. The information about the character and financial condition of the person soliciting for nurse children appears to be acceptable at first glance, but no name and no address is given. No references are asked for and none are offered. The sum of 15s a week to keep an infant or a sickly child was inadequate, and a sickly child and an infant under two months were the least likely to survive and the cheapest to bury. Infants were taken no questions asked and it was understood that for 12 pounds no questions were expected to be asked. The transaction between the mother and the babyfarmer usually took place in a public place, on public transportation, or through a second party. No personal information was exchanged, the money was paid, and the transaction was complete. The mother knew she would never see her infant alive again.

No doubt this practice flourishes in certain societies today and would do wherever the theocrats get the upper hand. Read the whole thing, as someone-or-other is wont to say.



Antiquated Tory 04.13.05 at 9:35 am

This also reminds me of a lament I’ve heard from some (smart enough to know better) libertarians that the state undermined the private and voluntary network of social support back in the ’30s. Is this an example of ‘market-based social support?’


digamma 04.13.05 at 9:38 am

I’m confused – how would the reader contact the advertiser without any information on how to do so?


Chris 04.13.05 at 9:48 am

I wondered about that, but I assume that the complete ad, whilst not giving name and address, supplied enough information to allow the mother to make contact with the baby farmer.


tad brennan 04.13.05 at 9:49 am

Now this is most alarming!

I had always thought that Gilbert invented the hilarious term “baby-farming” in Buttercup’s song in order to rhyme with “young and charming”. Now it turns out it was the other way around!


george 04.13.05 at 10:02 am

An awful glimpse of a hard time. More edifying to remember Mother Theresa’s famous ‘If you do not want your child, give it to me.’


Harry 04.13.05 at 10:03 am

If you can stand the soppiness and melodrama (I can) you might check out Berkeley Square, a miniseries about nannies in Edwardian London. The episode about baby farming stops short of the grisly truth, but not far short.


clew 04.13.05 at 10:33 am

digamma – one probably wrote the paper, or visited its office (in a heavy veil).

I am struck by the use of the Christian Times. I think some Charlotte Yonge heroines are too pure to read the news; perhaps they could be seen with a religious journal.


Dan Simon 04.13.05 at 10:34 am

No doubt this practice flourishes in certain societies today and would do wherever the theocrats get the upper hand.

The essay seems to me to suggest that the Victorian “theocrats” were basing their morality on economics, rather than the other way around. The public were simply tired of paying for the maintenance of illegitimate children, and so decided to make the production thereof a shameful thing. In other words, it was the Victorian version of “welfare reform”.

Of course, back then, there were no technological means for reliably discerning the fatherhood of a child, and mothers were almost never able to find sufficiently lucrative employment to enable them to support and care for their children. Things are different now, and that’s presumably why we don’t hear of baby farming in contemporary America.

In fact, as far as I know, the most dangerous places in the world to be an unwanted baby today are the famine-stricken regions of Africa, where starvation is a real possibility even for wanted babies, and China, where a strict one-child policy makes it very inconvenient for parents to have a second child (or the “wrong kind” of first child, for that matter). In real theocracies, on the other hand–Saudi Arabia, say, or Iran–I don’t imagine that too many illegitimate babies are ever born, since their mothers are likely to be most harshly dealt with long before birth. And even in that hideous theocracy, Republican America, there still seem to be lots of options short of murder for an unwed mother.

In short, Chris, your focus on first-world “theocrats”–rather than third-world poverty and tyranny–as a particular danger to illegitimate children seems rather anachronistic.


garampani 04.13.05 at 10:51 am

Couldn’t they have contacted each other through something like a post office box or though the newpaper office? I think that shops, also, for a fee allowed themselves to be used as a mailing address and kept the mail til it was called for.



Harry 04.13.05 at 10:52 am

You might all want, also, to check out John Boswell’s brilliant book The Kindness of Strangers, which documents the history of infanticide and child abandonment in Europe. Apparently the RC Church in medieval Europe looked on abandonment and infanticide with ambvalence, and made its case against abandonment not on child-centered grounds but because it created a risk of future incest. Infanticide was not taboo, and in fact the RC church in early medieval Europe is painted in the book as being more humane than you might have thought, harshly criticising the child-abandoning rich, but much softer on the child-abandoning poor (for whom an extra mouth to feed could make the difference between survival and non-survival). Both abandonment and infanticide fluctuated with the fluctuations int he economy, supporting dan’s claim that this is an economic phenomenon.

Its true, dan, that we don’t hear of baby-farming in contemporary US, and I’m sure that is mostly to do with the availability of abortion and the diminishment of absolute poverty. But child abandonment and infanticide still occur a little; usually carried out by women who are either mentally disturbed or in highly restricted situations. Susan Smith’s abusive step-father was a leading light in his evangelical church, I seem to remember.

OK, I’ll leave that as it is, but it seems that infanticide is a lot more common here than you’d have thought:


Chris 04.13.05 at 11:03 am

I didn’t specify that the theocrats were first-world Dan. They might be, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find this kind of thing happening in Iran or Pakistan.


SamChevre 04.13.05 at 11:05 am

If–and this is a stipulation, not an argument–one believes that human life begins at conception, isn’t this pretty much the same system that exists now, with legal abortion?

In other words, the “theocrats” who want to outlaw abortion may very well see themselves as trying to stop today’s equivalent of baby-farming.


garampani 04.13.05 at 11:05 am

Couldn’t they have contacted each other through something like a post office box or though the newpaper office? I think that shops, also, for a fee allowed themselves to be used as a mailing address and kept the mail til it was called for.



Dan Simon 04.13.05 at 12:00 pm

I didn’t specify that the theocrats were first-world Dan. They might be, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised to find this kind of thing happening in Iran or Pakistan.

I don’t know if it does or doesn’t, but either way, the connection between the practice and “theocrats” (I assume you mean “religious moralists”, since neither Pakistan nor Victorian England qualify as theocracies) strikes me as pretty tenuous. Are the Chinese Communists theocrats? It could be argued either way, I suppose, but I’m inclined to say, “no”. I suspect, though, that, say, Chinese Christians are much more opposed to the one-child policy than are secular Chinese (although I could be wrong about that).

In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel, “Things Fall Apart”–which I assume was fairly true to life in its depictions of Achebe’s native region of Nigeria–one effect of the conversion of the region to Christianity is the ending of the previous practice of infanticide for all twins. Were the Christian missionaries thus “theocrats”? How about the animist religious authorities who preceded them?

It’s pretty clear that “theocrats”, like secularists, can and do come down on either side of the issue, depending on economic, cultural and political circumstances. Economic deprivation, on the other hand, seems to be a much more consistent factor. Population pressure and lack of economic liberty for women may also tend to make infanticide more acceptable. It’s a complex issue, and putting it all down to “theocrats” is surely a gross oversimplification.


tad brennan 04.13.05 at 12:03 pm

On the prevalence of exposing unwanted children in Europe–

I have read the claim that the Italian surname “Esposito” comes from this practice, i.e. Mike Esposito = Mike, who was exposed as an infant.

David I. Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (Boston: Beacon, 1993), pp. 119-22.


Renee 04.13.05 at 12:53 pm

Today, in some parts of the US, young women are encouraged to leave the babies at fire stations or police departments, no questions asked, no punishment either. That to me comes close to baby-farming.

Yes, it is better than infanticide.

Morality and money go together. The bean counters will always justify their actions with morals, i.e. religion.


Renee 04.13.05 at 12:56 pm

Sorry, I am new at this. What kind of moderation?


digamma 04.13.05 at 2:17 pm

renee: I don’t think that’s comparable at all. A mother who leaves her baby at an American police department does so with the assumption that it will be adopted by a family who wants it, not disposed of.


jimbo 04.13.05 at 2:50 pm

digemma –

C’mon, this is CT. Round, here, it’s simply understood that U.S. policemen would roast the baby and serve it with a nice garlic sauce. After all, there’s only a limited supply of Iraqi and Afghan babies to go around, and U.S. servicemen tend to get the first pick…


John Quiggin 04.13.05 at 3:32 pm

The other side of this is wet-nursing. To feed the employer’s baby the wetnurse had to leave her own in the care of other family members, and without breast milk or modern formulas, the results were commonly fatal (of course, this was against a background of very high rates of infant mortalit in any case, so nothing could be proved).


Renee 04.13.05 at 3:43 pm


I did not think or say the babies would be disposed of. The idea is to give the child up for adoption no questions asked. The main point is anonymity.

And then as now I believe some would have loved to keep their child.

There is a movie”The Magdalena Sisters” about an institution for “fallen” girls in Ireland, run by the Sisters even in late 70th 80th, it is heart wrenching.

To give up a child is just as horrible today as it was then.


Barry Freed 04.13.05 at 3:47 pm

I have read somewhere, and in more than one text, references to old wells or sewer drains dating back to Medieval times being excavated in Europe and the resultant grisly finds of dozens of infant skeletons.

Interestingly (well, for me at any rate), the practice of wet-nursing in ancient Arabia was quite common. Particularly by urban people as it was considered desireable for one’s child to grow up among the Bedouin as they were regarded as speaking a purer form of Arabic. This practice became codified in Islamic law such that an infant having been breast fed by the same wet-nurse x number of times (I think it’s around 6) would regard the wet-nurse as his/her milk-mother. Hence, all relevant Islamic family law would apply (prohibition on marriage, permissibility of not covering up, etc., – not so sure though about inheritance law, I think not since that is Qur’anic but I’d have to check.)


Barry Freed 04.13.05 at 4:01 pm

A further note on ancient Arabia.

The practice of leaving infanticide via exposure was fairly common in pre-Islamic Arabia. Enough so that a prohibition against it is found in the Qur’an (nb-only about 5% of the Qur’anic text is legislative.)


george 04.13.05 at 4:24 pm

I’ve heard of wet nursing, but this is the first I’ve heard it was detrimental to the wet nurse’s own child. Any supporting evidence? Can’t most nursing mothers produce more milk than is necessary for one child? How do twins make do?


Barry Freed 04.13.05 at 4:41 pm

How do twins make do?

Well george, to cop an old Woody Allen line: They usually travel in pairs.


James Palmer 04.13.05 at 6:31 pm

The second or more child in China is kept ninety-percent of the time, provided they’re healthy. Evasion of the one-child policy is very, very common, particularly in the countryside. It’s mostly the urban middle class who have only one child; the richer classes can afford to pay the fines and the lower classes are increasingly off the radar of the authorities. I’ve heard estimates from Chinese sociologists that the population is between one and three hundred million higher than the official figures. Abandoned children are, in my limited experience, mostly physically handicapped in some fashion; a perennial horror of the Chinese.

Also, this reminds me of a joke –

Poland, a few centuries ago, and a small infant is abandoned on the doorstep of a poor nunnery. The nuns don’t have the wherewithal to care for the child themselves, but they’re treating a town priest with a rich living for constipation. Reasoning he must be a little naive about these things, they tell him that, miracle of miracles, he’s pregnant, drug him unconscious, and the next day present him with a bouncing baby boy.

So, the priest goes back to his living and brings the boy with him as his adopted son. Everyone naturally assumes he’s the priest’s bastard, and the boy, of course, grows up calling him ‘Father.’

Come the boy’s sixteenth birthday, the priest calls him into his office.

‘My son, I have something important to tell you.’
‘Yes, Father.’
‘That’s just it, son. I’m not your father. I’m your mother. The Bishop of Krakow was your father.’


Jon H 04.13.05 at 8:34 pm

Barry Freed writes: “I have read somewhere, and in more than one text, references to old wells or sewer drains dating back to Medieval times being excavated in Europe and the resultant grisly finds of dozens of infant skeletons.”

An entry in Britannica (I believe on European history) briefly refers to a case of a sewer drain in France, which was cleaned out and revealed a number of baby skeletons. I think it was supposed to have happened in the 1700s, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in the 20th century.


John Quiggin 04.14.05 at 7:45 am

George, the references I can find easily are all behind subscription walls, but I’m pretty sure this is right, particularly in cases, as in France, where the wetnurse was expected to live with the household that employed her, and leave her baby at home.


George 04.14.05 at 4:01 pm

I don’t necessarily not believe it, but it’s news to me. I don’t have any evidence for the opposite position either I suppose, I just thought wetnurses (like other servants) would maintain their whole families at the house of their employers, at least richer employers with big manor-houses and stuff. Where did I get that idea? Is that more typical of the English? Or does anybody do that?


John Quiggin 04.14.05 at 6:28 pm

Here’s what I was looking for

In eighteenth-century Europe, anti-wet nursing literature expressed concern for the well-being of the babies being farmed out, but not much consideration for the offspring of the wet nurses who were often neglected or even permitted to die to make way for a paying consumer


George 04.14.05 at 7:11 pm

Fascinating, thanks. Another ugly glimpse of the industrial revolution. I wonder how long that practice went on. (Suppose I could read the source.)


Peggy 04.16.05 at 1:29 am

“Theocrats” practiced child murder? The practices described that occurred in Victorian Britain had nothing to do with religion. Nor does child murder today.

Seems to me that a certain infamous professor at an Ivy League university today advocates not only abortion on demand but also infantacide up to age three years if a kid turns out not to be quite perfect, and I believe he is not only a Leftist, politically, but also an atheist.


Ted K 04.16.05 at 11:47 am

It is my understanding that there was a boom of bastard births between about 1750 and 1850, coinciding with the first Industrial Revolution, the rise of cottage industry, and the decline of tightly regimented open-field peasant farming.

In an old-style peasant village, if she gets pregnant everyone has a pretty good idea who dad is, and the couple are pressured to marry. Few single moms, limited pre-engagement sex because everyone knows that pregnancy=marriage, sexual relations start with engagement, and about 1/3 of all brides are pregnant.

When those social controls broke down, there were a lot more absconding dads and seductions, to the point where some estimates have about 1 birth in 3 being out of wedlock. “Victorian” morality was in part an attempt to create new social pressures that would put an end to the crisis of bastardry. It worked, for a while.

So the turn of the 18th century saw a vast rise in foundlings hospitals (dying places), in baby farms (dying places), and in wet nurses including killing nurses (if you pay her when she takes on the baby, not when the baby is healthily weaned, she has an incentive to kill the child.)

In any case, I would not blame the theocrats for this one. Save the blame for folks like Anthony Comstock who criminalized birth control.

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