The Deathly Female Contemporary of Jack the Ripper
She was well known to Charles Dickens, but is almost unheard of today — The 19 victims of Margaret Waters were helpless children
Content warning: this article contains descriptions of the abuse and murder of children including genuine witness testimony from the 1800s which elaborates on the condition of the victims. Additionally, this article contains a discussion of capital punishment and extreme poverty.
Victorian London was riddled with killers; from the plague to poverty — the cold winters to arsenic wallpaper.
Some of these killers took human form — Jack the Ripper being the most notorious.
Some of these killers took a rarer form still — female.
While it’s estimated that fewer than 17% of the world’s serial killers are women, Victorian London was home to a unique breed of females who systematically murdered large numbers of victims under their own roofs.
They were known as ‘baby farmers.’
These killers didn’t operate under the radar (not that we had radar back then) — it was well known in society and even made it into the most famous works of the time.
Here’s an extract from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, talking about this type of serial killer:
For the next eight or ten months, Oliver was the victim of a systematic course of treachery and deception. He was brought up by hand…“farmed,” [meaning Oliver] rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing, under the parental superintendence of an elderly female.
The elderly female — a woman of wisdom… appropriated the greater part of the weekly stipend to her own use…
…it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that [the baby] sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident…
It’s certainly not the case that all baby farmers were killers.
Indeed, many existed who sacrificed everything to care for their charges.
However, many killed off dozens of children, and below you’ll find the story of one of them — Margaret Waters — the first to be tried and convicted of infanticide in the UK.
Born in Brixton, in 1835, Margaret was raised in a fairly poor family with her siblings. Married young, Margaret lived with her husband for approximately 15 years until his death.
Once she was without a husband, Margaret (now aged 29) had to find a way to support herself and turned to baby farming in 1864.
Margaret began by placing adverts in local newspapers, offering to ‘adopt’ children. This commanded a premium of £4 to £10 which was a substantial amount.
For the sum, Margaret would take the children and promise the birth parents that she’d place them with good families or care for them herself. Some of the babies she took were the illegitimate children of wealthy men who would be handed to her at train stations or from coaches when they were but hours old.
Once she had the baby in her care, Margaret would then take them to a childminder and pay for two weeks’ care. Presumably, Margaret claimed to be the child’s mother who had found work for two weeks or was travelling to visit family. This kind of arrangement was very normal at the time and it was only when Margaret failed to return that the childminders realized that the child was now theirs alone.
Margaret would then pocket the difference between the sum paid by the birth parents and the cost paid to the minder.
A hefty amount in Victorian London.
Once she’d exhausted the childminder scheme, Margaret came up with a new way to pass the babies to someone else. Once the birth parents had paid up and said goodbye for the last time, Margaret would walk with the baby through the streets for a little while. Upon coming across some children playing in the street, she would ask one of the children to hold the baby for her while she went into a shop or two. Giving the child a penny to go and get themselves some candy, Margaret would then take off, never to be seen by either child again.
It was this scheme that almost got her caught…
One day, a boy returned too swiftly from the candy shop and Margaret hadn’t managed to leave the street. Diving into an Oyster Shop, Margaret took cover and watched from the window. Upon realizing that the ‘mother’ of the baby had vanished, the boy burst into fits of tears and attracted the attention of a passing policeman.
Margaret’s luck held out that day, as the Bobby*, the boy and the baby moved away together.
Despite £10 being more than the average annual wage at that time, Margaret fell constantly into debt and turned to a loan shark. Owing more and more meant that she needed to ‘adopt’ more babies, but she was running out of ways to dispose of them.
Margaret began keeping more children in her home, drugging them heavily as they gradually starved to death. It’s believed that she enlisted the help of her sister to ‘care’ for the children but the depth of Sarah’s involvement isn’t fully known.
Once a baby died in the home, Margaret would wrap the body in rags and leave it in a side street.
You may think that dumping bodies around London would attract some attention to this serial killer’s activities, but no. A burial in London was an expensive affair, even for a paupers grave. Unsurprisingly, bodies left in the streets were common sights and no heads turned.
‘You Appear to be Murdering this Child!’
Margaret was only caught due to the care and vigilance of a grandfather.
When Robert Tassie Cowen discovered that his unwed daughter (Jessie aged just 16) was with child, he began to seek out a solution. An unmarried girl with a child would struggle to find a ‘good match’ with a suitable husband and would be ostracised by London society at the time. Keen to secure his daughter’s future, Robert sought out an adoptive family for the child.
Following an advert in a local newspaper, Robert met with Margaret to discuss what arrangements could be made. Margaret claimed to be a well-off, married woman whose husband was desperate for a child. When Robert explained that he wanted to remain in touch with the child, to know of its progress in life from a ‘suitable’ distance, Margaret willingly agreed.
It’s safe to guess that Margaret had heard similar requests from birth parents before, but she easily outmaneuvered them by using false names and addresses. Given the lack of general literacy or proper documentation in Victorian London, it wasn’t hard to lose touch.
According to Mr. Cowen and his Land Lady, Margaret pretended not to be interested in the money at all, taking £2 initially and promising to return for another £2.
It was when Margaret failed to return with the baby for a visit to Mr. Cowen that he began to seek her out and involved the local police.
After a week’s searching, the police presented Mr. Cowen with a woman whom they believed to be caring for a number of children close by.
Mr. Cowen told the police that it was not the woman he was seeking.
In a twist of fate, as the woman turned to leave, Mr. Cowen recognized the dress that she was wearing to be the same one that Margaret Waters had worn on her last visit to his home and he followed the woman back to Frederick Street.
Sarah Ellis was later identified as Margaret’s sister and when Mr. Cowen returned with the police, a Doctor, and others, both women were holding children.
Inside, more babies and a number of children aged 2–5 years were found.
All of the babies were severely malnourished and couldn’t be roused.
A bottle of laudanum was noticed on the table and the Doctor examined the pupils of the babies, finding them all to be heavily drugged.
Mr. Cowen turned to Margaret and exclaimed:
'You appear to be murdering this child!'
The doctor immediately ordered that a wet nurse (woman employed to breastfeed babies) was sent for but the babies, including Mr. Cowen’s grandson, could not be saved.
Below is the description of Baby Cowen, taken from the trial witness testimony:
Other children were removed and placed in the local workhouse.
In all, Margaret claimed to have ‘cared’ for more than 40 children in her 4 years of ‘farming.’
Margaret on Trial
Margaret and her sister, Sarah were taken into custody following the death of Baby Cowen, two weeks after Mr. Cowen located her ‘farm’ in Frederick Street.
The charge was depriving Baby Cowen of proper nourishment.
A post mortem examination of the babies found that they weighed approximately 4lbs when 12lbs is a conservative estimate as to what their weight ought to have been.
Immediately, Margaret assumed full responsibility saying that Sarah had worked for her and was entirely directed by her. Margaret said:
'I am the sinner.'
Following a lengthy trial with multiple witnesses and a deep dive into her history, Margaret was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
Sarah was sentenced to 18 months of hard labor for her failures in the care of the babies.
Death Row and Execution
Margaret’s composure was remarked upon by all who encountered her during her time on death row in Horsemonger Lane Gaol. Her Chaplain, Custodian, and the execution audience all made note of her calmness and self-control throughout.
The night before her execution, Margaret penned a statement in which she laid the blame for the baby deaths firmly on the birth parents. Without birth parents so keen to abandon their children, baby-farming would be impossible, Margaret claimed.
On October 11th, 1870, Margaret approached the scaffold calmly.
A prayer was said by her, which many noted as being ‘beautiful and disturbing.’ Afterward, she asked her Chaplain if he believed she was now free of sin — his answer was heard only by Margaret herself.
William Calcroft was one of the most prolific British hangmen with 450 executions to his name. First, Margaret was pinioned by Calcroft — her hands strapped to a belt that was already fastened around her waist. Once she was hooded and position, the Chaplain and lawmen withdrew from the scaffold. After securing the noose around Margaret’s neck, Calcroft drew the bolt and she left this world ‘almost without struggle.’
Children are murdered in scores by these women, adoption is only a fine phrase for slow or sudden death — The Times — 1870
Although Margaret was the first baby farmer to be executed, she certainly wasn’t the last. Serial murderers more notorious than Margaret followed in her farming footsteps.
Throughout the era, baby farmers were innumerable, taking in illegitimate and unwanted babies as well those trusted to them by poor parents who needed childcare while they worked or traveled.
Baby farming continued throughout the rest of the 1800s, although it certainly received more attention from lawmakers and newspapers as Britain crept towards the 1900s.
Finally, the Children’s Act of 1908 and later adoption laws legislated this practice into non-existence.
Victorian London was a hard, hard place.
A place of a daily struggle for survival for so many, especially women and children.
What Margaret Waters did was inexcusable. Unforgivable. Disgusting.
What Margaret Waters did should never have been possible, but it was possible.
It was possible because Margaret thrived in a society where the most vulnerable were not protected; that includes the mothers (such as Oliver Twist’s Mom and Jessie Cowen), the poor, the sick, the old, and of course, children.
When I walk the streets of London now, I frequently think of the regular people who walked those ways in Victorian times and I wonder what my life would have been if I was born only a few decades earlier. Would I have been forced to leave my children with a baby farmer while I scrubbed hearths or made match sticks? What if my husband had died as Margaret’s did — what would I have done to survive? Perhaps I’d have been pregnant at 16 like Jessie Cowen, my baby taken from me and secretly given away.
It’s not sadness that I feel. It’s gratitude. I feel grateful. So grateful that I live in a time when I can be a single Mum with two children, owning my own home, in command of my own destiny and happily living in sin with someone I love.
Equality still has a long way to go, and wow do I appreciate how far we’ve come.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article today. If you'd like to leave a tip, it'd be much appreciated,
Kindest, Jessie x
*Bobby — a term for a member of London’s Metropolitan Police derived from the name of Sir Robert Peel, who established the force in 1829.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 8.0, 30 December 2020), September 1870, trial of MAGARET WATERS (35) SARAH ELLIS (28) (t18700919–769).
The Spectator Archive-http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/1st-october-1870/11/the-trade-of-murder
Dickens, C. (2008). Oliver Twist. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Ultimate History Project — Baby Farming http://ultimatehistoryproject.com/baby-farmers-and-angelmakers-childcare-in-19th-century-england.html