Baby farming in George Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ (1894)

A baby's body is recovered from a river.

By the 1890s, the growing social conscience of the Victorians had led to the figure of the baby farmer crystallising into a figure both fearsome and criminal in the public’s mind. The baby farming trade itself was represented as a thoroughly disreputable one: sentiments openly expressed in respected publications such as the British Medical Journal.

The character of the baby farmer in literature only occasionally appears: examples can be found in early, mid and late Victorian fiction by Mrs Mann in Oliver Twist, Mrs Drury in Sorrow On The Sea and Mrs Spires in Esther Waters respectively.

Mrs Spires, the baby farmer in Esther Waters, embodies many of the anxieties that were surfacing more openly by the 1890s. Such anxieties were also being aired in social reform literature of the same decade by the founder of the NSPCC, Benjamin Waugh. In 1890, Waugh’s Baby-Farming article, an emotive and influential document, criticised the trade, the inadequacies of the law in regulating it and exposed the deceitful and often criminal practices and actions of baby farmers.

If we look at the baby farming episode of Moore’s novel, it demands a consideration of the extent to which apathy and indifference, ranging through to collusion, of the middle classes assisted evil baby farmers in their designs. Mrs Spires corresponds to much of what Waugh identifies in his Baby-Farming tract and certainly reinforces the idea presented by Waugh of the baby farmer murdering for financial gain:

“There were three five-pound notes in the cradles; if Esther would listen to reason there would be twenty pounds”

This post contributed by Loriner Allan, who will be running a Continuing Education course on “Crime in Classic Literature” in autumn 2012, at the University of Liverpool. More details to follow soon.

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About Chris Routledge

I'm a university teacher, writer and editor, based in Lancashire in the UK. My most recent book is 'Cain's: The Story of Liverpool in a Pint', a 200-year history of Liverpool's famous Robert Cain brewery.
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