Baby Farming in Newton

In the Victorian era infant mortality was very high; of the 800,000 births recorded in England in 1880, about 120,000 died before their first Birthday. Of these deaths about 60,000 were due to inadequate starch-based diets, cornflower and water etc. 20,000 from diseases, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, about 10,000 premature births, 10,000 violent deaths, and a variety of causes is recorded for the deaths of the remaining 20,000. 

Most of the violent deaths were accidental, recorded as “overlaying” and frequently occurring on Saturday Nights. The Dictionary of Hygiene and Public Heath (1876) ascribes this to mother’s drinking on Saturday evenings and whilst in a stupor lying on top of their child. Obviously the author had no concept of the working and living conditions of families living in poverty, often sleeping five to a bed.

It was known that many infants’ illnesses were treated with cordials, spirits and even narcotics to an alarming degree. Many of the deaths recorded as convulsions, were really cases of poisoning. 

But perhaps the most abhorrent practice was Baby Farming, which is the way of accepting custody of a child or infant in exchange for cash, which often resulted in child abuse or worse. This often occurred when the child was illegitimate, the birth mother was a Workhouse resident, or already had multiple children. The child was given to a “Nurse” with a weekly payment, but in some cases a one off payment was made, especially if the child was weak or illegitimate. The latter was often done on the understanding that the “Nurse” would do what was necessary to make the problem go away by nursing then adoption, but sometimes by unscrupulous “Nurses” by starving, drowning or suffocation. The most horrific cases occurred in London and a number of women were executed for serial killings of infants. Perhaps the worst was Amelia Dyer who was executed in 1896 for strangling and dumping the bodies of 400 infants in the 20 years she had been practicing her trade. 

Amelia Dyer

 In an attempt to curtail the practice, which had become prevalent, Parliament introduced the “Infant Life Protection Act 1872” that had good intentions, but no teeth.

As a consequence of the lack of inspections Baby Farming continued even in Newton. 

Two Newton women were charged with Baby Farming and causing the death of two infants, a Betsy Binmore of No 4 Court, Wolborough Street and  a Mrs Wills of No 10 Court, East Street. Mrs Wills was found not guilty, but Betsy Binmore was tried for Murder, but was reduced to Manslaughter at her trial and sentenced to 12 Years in Knaphill Female Prison-Woking.

Betsy Binmore (43) was charged with the wilful murder of five month old Margaret Phillips in January 1875. Mrs Binmore had been made a widow some years earlier and her daughter claimed she began her Baby Farming business to support herself and her family. But in contravention of the 1872 Act she did not register her activity and as a consequence was not inspected, although the Inspection regime was almost non-existent. 

A Mary Phillips had Margaret the previous August in the Newton Abbot Workhouse; she cared for it for a while then gave it to a number of “Nurses” in Wolborough Street so she could work. Finally being taken in by Mrs Binmore at No 4 Court who was paid 2s 6d a week by Mary and 1s 6d by the Board of Guardians for Margaret’s care. 

In late December 1874 Mrs Binmore called on a Dr Haydon to attend the sickly Margaret, but after much discussion he said he would not attend to her unless he was paid. He then left. The following day she requested that Dr Drake and Dr Jane should attend Margaret, both refused unless they were paid. She then took Margaret to Mr Ponsford, Chemist Wolborough Street, he said the child was emaciated and he gave Mrs Binmore two Powders, but the Margaret became worse.

Sergeant Nicholls said Mrs Binmore came to him and said “one of the children is dead”; he visited her house and found two other children in an emaciated state. He weighed these two infants and they were just under 8lbs. Mrs Binmore claimed that her Bread Book showed she had fed the children, but as Dr Haydon belated said such young children needed milk. It was a very common practice for a substitute milk concoction to be made from Cornflower and Water, obviously of zero nutritional value. It was revealed at the trial that three other children had died in Mrs Binmore’s care.

Mrs Binmore Murder conviction was reduced to Manslaughter and she was sentenced to 12 years.

The Magistrates and others severely criticised the Doctors, Authorities and the Community. 

  1. Doctors- were criticised for putting payment before care. “Surely out of common humanity they should attend”. Considerable applause followed.
  2. Registration-even though Mrs Binmore did not seem to know that her business should be regulated, the Police and Local Board made no attempt to check her credentials. Even though three children had previously died.
  3. The Board of Guardians – were asked if their payment of 1s 6d a week was sufficient to feed a Baby. They made excuses.
  4. Relieving Officer – Mr Roberts (of reminisces fame)  apparently was unavailable to pay for the Doctor
  5. Community – letters in the Newspapers made the point that certain Ladies who took it upon themselves to visit the Poor, should have been aware of Mrs Binmore business.
  6. Mothers – although they were in dire straits themselves, often in the Workhouse, they should have made more effort to check on their child.
  7. Infant Life Protection Act 1972 – in spite of the abuses the Act was not toughen until the turn of the Century.

It was not raised at the Trial, but her motive was unclear. If she intended to kill the children in her care, it would have been more profitable to take a one off payment, rather than weekly payments. But perhaps Workhouse mothers had no way of raising such sums, so she took the longer view or perhaps Mrs Binmore was neglectful or unable to manage looking after six children, which included her own. Perhaps the murder charge was reduced to manslaughter, because she made a number of attempts to seek help.

Mrs Binmore served her full sentence and is recorded in 1901 and 1911 as a Charwomen living with her daughter Sarah in Ilsington. She died in 1912 aged 80. 

Although Mrs Binmore was not the worst of the Baby Farmers, her case was reported throughout the Land, which did not improve the reputation of Newton Abbot.