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The plight of unmarried mothers in 1890s Britain is probably not something many of us have thought about. I know I hadn't, until reading Amelia Dyer - Angel Maker by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale. These days, thankfully, having a baby outside wedlock does not destroy a woman's life and future prospects. It was very different then, when unmarried mothers usually faced poverty and destitution, without much hope of being accepted by a man or an employer.
So the trade of "baby farming" emerged and one woman to profit from this dubious work was Amelia Dyer, a former nurse. Using her medical training, she offered to house women in their final months of pregnancy, deliver the baby and deal with the problem afterwards - all for a fee, of course.
Dyer also advertised in newspapers for babies to adopt. For a one-off fee ("Premium") which was usually £10, she would collect the unwanted baby and offer to bring it up as her own, caring for it and loving it as a mother should. It was a good arrangement for both parties - the mother could get on with her life unburdened, while Dyer made a living.
However, Amelia Dyer had more sinister intentions. She had no desire to nurture the babies, instead preferring to dose them up on drugs so they slept most of the time and their rare bottle feeds consisted of water, a bit of cornflour and some condensed milk. Not surprisingly, they failed to thrive and wasted away. Some didn't even last that long, being smothered or strangled by Dyer before being abandoned in the river.
For many years, she evaded detection and capture by moving house, changing her name and using her wits to lie her way out of trouble. But eventually, she is bound to make a mistake. Out of all those mothers who have sold her their children and all the doctors who have pronounced children dead at Dyer's homes, surely someone will talk one day and Dyer's crimes will be discovered...
As you can imagine, reading a book about these events is not a pleasant experience, but it is a fascinating one. While it may seem as though I have given away a lot in this review, there is plenty more I haven't mentioned and you will discover more as you read. I think it is important to be prepared and to know what to expect from this book, as it is a disturbing subject.
The photographs inside include two of dead babies in the mortuary and one of these is also on the top right hand corner of the front cover. The cover portrait of Amelia Dyer herself is also disturbing, her cold eyes staring unnervingly. I found I always kept this book upside down by the side of my bed, so I did not have to see that face, but instead was presented by the plain dark cover of the back of the book.
Dyer moved around the country frequently, but she was based in the Bristol area for many years. I currently live in Bristol and I found it quite chilling that these horrific events had taken place in parts of the city that we know and visit, even in the area we live in!
As a mother myself, I cannot imagine how Dyer could dispose of so many babies with such brutality and coldness. It is probably an easy option to brand her as evil, but I have no other theory. She might well have blamed economic necessity or insanity, but the book investigates these aspects without stating one particular theory as the true one.
Alison Rattle and Allison Vale present the facts as dispassionately as possible and this is not a sensationalist read. It has been well-researched and uses a variety of primary sources such as newspapers from the time, drawings, photographs and letters.
The chapters are often short and the book is very readable. I spent hours reading it in big chunks and finding it hard to put down, as further horrors were unveiled and I wanted to know what would happen to Amelia Dyer.
The book isn't perfect though. I found some of the descriptions of places to be rather flowery and tedious, but this is a general dislike of mine anyway. I also found the story rather repetitive at times, though this is understandable, as Dyer repeats her pattern of crimes over a period of several years.
While the story of Amelia Dyer's crimes is a thoroughly unpleasant and upsetting one, I do feel it should be known. While many criminals such as Jack the Ripper are household names, it seems obscene that this woman who killed hundreds of babies should receive anonymity. If only for those poor children, she should be known and remembered.
The book isn't completely pessimistic either. I finished the read feeling pleased and relieved that life has improved so much since the 1890s. I am glad to see how cases of baby farmers directly led to a change in the laws on adoption, so that they became more regulated and supervised. I am also proud of a welfare state that can support an unmarried mother to bring up her child and not lead her to resort to such drastic measures that allowed women like Amelia Dyer to take perfectly healthy babies and turn them into angels.
Thanks to JOHNV on Ciao for his review of the book which piqued my interest enough for me to borrow it from the library.
Amelia Dyer - Angel Maker by Alison Rattle and Allison Vale was published by Andre Deutsch in 2007. The hardback version is currently selling on Amazon UK for £9.76.