When Mother’s Friend was an Enemy 1

In 1870 Margaret Waters, of Brixton in the south of London, gained the dubious distinction of being the first woman to be convicted and executed for being a Baby Farmer. But she was almost certainly not the first to have utilised this horrifying method of earning some money. Baby Farmers, called Angel Makers in some European countries, were women who took in babies, either for a weekly payment, or more often, a one off payment. These babies were often the children of unmarried mothers, or sometimes widowed mothers forced to give up the child so they could earn a living. The baby farmer took in the child, promising it a good home, but in reality providing the complete opposite. It was in the Baby Farmer's financial interest to take in as many children as possible, and if the child had been taken on for a set payment, there was no further financial gain to come by keeping the child living.

Even those who didn’t set out to deliberately do away with the babies would find it much easier to cope if the infants were given something to keep them calm and stop them crying. And just such a remedy was readily available from the pharmacist. In fact there were several different patent medicines that would do the trick: Godfrey’s Cordial (known as Mother's Friend), Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Dalby's Carminitive and Ayres' Sarsparilla to name just a few.

Photo Credit: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old English Patent Medicines in America, by George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young

What they all had in common was their “active ingredient”: opium, usually in the form of laundanum, which is a tincture of opium.

These remedies were used for sleeplessness, pain and diarrhoea. But a side effect of the opium is that the children lose their appetite and stop eating. If kept up long enough they will gradually die of starvation or malnutrition. Even if they don't they will cease to be trouble to a Baby Farmer. It is important to state that not all Baby Farmers used this method of doing away with their charges, but some certainly did.

Margaret Waters and her sister Sarah Ellis were arrested as a result of the investigations of Sgt Relf of the Metropolitan Police. In their household were eleven children. They older ones were paid for weekly and were in reasonable health, but eight of the babies were in a very poor state. They were emaciated, in a state of torpor, had a glazed look about their eyes and their pupils did not respond to light. Five of those babies eventually died.

Whether it was Margaret Waters, or her sister Sarah Ellis who administered the laudanum to the babies, the transcripts of the trial for the murder of one of those children at the Old Bailey leave no room for doubt that the drugging of these children was a major contributory factor in their deaths.

Margaret Waters disposing of a baby's body. Photo Credit: Illustrated Police News, 15 Oct 1870, Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMargaret_Waters_%22Disposing_of_the_Bodies%22.jpg

And yet, as laudanum was an ingredient in so many of the patent medicines available over the counter, I wonder whether there were other deaths, totally accidental, that should be attributed to these medicines? Who would not understand the caring mother who, seeing her beloved baby suffering from colic or reflux, would not want to take any measures to stop her child’s suffering. And how many of those might have unknowingly sentenced their baby to a slow death by malnutrition by stopping the child’s natural urge to feed by the administration of these dangerous narcotics. Every time I see “marasmus” or “failure to thrive” on an infant’s death certificate I can’t help but wonder if the mother, out of the very best of intentions, inadvertently caused the child’s death as a result of her desire to ease her child’s pain.

Jenny Joyce

About Jenny Joyce

Jenny Joyce is a professional genealogist, lecturer, teacher and writer from Sydney, Australia. She specialises in Australian, English, Irish and Scottish genealogy and has deep interest in DNA in relation to genealogy, palaeography and historical photography. She is the author of the Jennyalogy blog (https://jennyalogy.blogspot.com) and the Jennyalogy Podcast (https://jennyalogypodcast.blogspot.com).

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