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Baby farming was a term used in late-Victorian Era Britain (and, less commonly, in Australia and the United States) to mean the taking in of an infant or child for payment; if the infant was young, this usually included wet-nursing (breast-feeding by a woman not the mother). Some baby farmers "adopted" children for lump-sum payments, while others cared for infants for periodic payments. Though baby farmers were paid in the understanding that care would be provided, the term "baby farmer" was used as an insult, and improper treatment was usually implied. Illegitimacy and its attendant stigma were usually the impetus for a mother's decision to put her children "out to nurse" with a baby farmer, but baby farming also encompassed foster care and adoption in the period before they were regulated by British law.
Richer women would also put their babies out to be cared for in the homes of villagers. Claire Tomalin gives a detailed account of this in her biography of Jane Austen, who was fostered in this manner, as were all her siblings, from a few months old until they were toddlers. Tomalin emphasizes the emotional distance this created.
Particularly in the case of lump-sum adoptions, it was more profitable for the baby farmer if the infant or child she adopted died, since the small payment could not cover the care of the child for long. Some baby farmers adopted numerous children and then neglected them or murdered them outright (see infanticide). Several were tried for murder, manslaughter, or criminal neglect and were hanged. Margaret Waters (executed 1870) and Amelia Dyer (executed 1896) were two infamous British baby farmers, as were Amelia Sach and Annie Walters (executed 1903). The last baby farmer to be executed in Britain was Rhoda Willis, who was hanged in Wales in 1907. The only woman to be executed in New Zealand, Minnie Dean, was a baby farmer. In Scandinavia there was an euphemism for this activity: "änglamakerska" (Swedish) and "englemagerske" (Danish), both literally meaning a female "angel maker".
Spurred by a series of articles that appeared in the British Medical Journal in 1867, Parliament began to regulate baby farming in 1872 with the passage of the Infant Life Protection Act. A series of acts passed over the next seventy years, including the Children Act 1908 and the 1939 Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act, gradually placed adoption and foster care under the protection and regulation of the state.
Baby farming in works of fiction or popular culture
- The title character in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist spends his first years in a "baby farm."
- The eponymous heroine puts her newborn "out to nurse" with a baby farmer in George Moore's Esther Waters (1894).
- The main character in Perfume, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, was orphaned at birth and brought up by baby farmers. (It was actually an orphanage and his mother had been hanged shortly after his birth)
- The character of Mrs. Sucksby in Sarah Waters's novel Fingersmith is a baby farmer.
- The Gilbert and Sullivan opera H.M.S. Pinafore, the character of Buttercup reveals that, when a baby farmer, she had switched two babies of different social classes. This is part of a satire of class hierarchy in Victorian England.
- The book Mama's Babies by Gary Crew is the story of a child of a baby farmer in the 1890s.
- The silent film Sparrows (1926) with Mary Pickford was set in a baby farm in the Southern swamps.
- In The Fire Thief trilogy of novels, a baby farm figures prominently.
- Australian musical The Hatpin features a mother's experience with baby farmers and was inspired by the true story of Amber Murray and the Makin family.
- In a March 2013 episode of Syfy's Haunted Collector, John Zaffis and his team discovered that a Boston cigar bar used to house a baby farm in the 1870s. Ms. Elwood, who ran the farm, was found to have abused and even killed some of the infants there. They also found a syringe buried in the building's foundation dating to the same time frame of the farm.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Baby-Farming". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- "Baby farming" from the Adoption History Project
- Homrighaus, Ruth Ellen. Baby Farming: The Care of Illegitimate Children in England, 1860–1943. Ph.D. diss., 2003. Rev. ed., 2010, at Historytools, <http://www.historytools.org/babyfarming/baby-farming.html>
- Baby farmers (NZHistory.net.nz)