The baby killer’s daughter

The baby killer’s daughter

When I recently posted about local Victorian baby farmer, Amelia Dyer, many readers, on Facebook groups such as Old Reading, wanted to know more about Dyer’s natural family. Since then, I’ve been investigating her own children, in particular her second surviving daughter, Mary Ann. Her story has chilling echoes of her mother’s.

In 1896 Amelia Dyer was convicted of murder, following the discovery of infant corpses wrapped in brown paper parcels in the river Thames at Caversham. Despite her coldblooded strangling of the babies in her care, the notorious serial killer had three children of her own who managed to survive infancy. During her first marriage to George Thomas, Amelia gave birth to a daughter, Ellen, in the Bristol area, not far from where she originally came. When her husband died, five years later, she married William Dyer and had at least two more children: Mary Ann in 1873 and William Samuel in 1876. They were born in Bedminster.

Mary Ann Dyer grew up in very difficult circumstances. Not only was her mother fostering other young children for a fee, but she also had women lodging with them during their confinement. Life was chaotic for the young Dyer family and, as well as babies constantly ‘disappearing’, their mother was addicted to the common Victorian narcotic, laudanum – Amelia suffered episodes of violence, threatening to kill herself and her own children, as Mary Ann later testified at her mother’s trial:

She said she heard voices and she had a delusion that I was going to murder her. She threatened my life on several occasions and once she attempted it.

On three occasions during Mary Ann’s childhood, Amelia was forced to enter a lunatic asylum. Each time she came out, she would advertise for more babies to foster and the cycle would continue.

On 12 May 1894, Mary Ann – also known as Polly – married Arthur Ernest Palmer, in Horfield, Gloucestershire. The couple moved around several times before joining Amelia in Caversham, where they all lived together in Piggotts Road (pictured above), very close to the bank of the river Thames. During their stay, Mary Ann and her husband also adopted two children: a 13-month-old boy named Harry, and a 10-week-old girl who died shortly afterwards – the Palmers had taken up baby farming. When Amelia moved on, to Kensington Road in Reading, Mary Ann and Arthur settled in Willesden, London and it was at this address that some of the most shocking events unfolded.

Amelia Dyer visited her daughter and son-in-law on 31 March 1896. She had a carpet bag with her and a child wrapped in a shawl. Mary Ann was concerned that the baby in the shawl didn’t move throughout her mother’s overnight stay – it was laid on the sofa and left unattended. That evening the three adults went to Paddington Station and collected another child for adoption. He was Harry Simmonds. A few days later, when  the carpet bag was found in the river at Caversham, it contained the bodies of Harry and the child in the shawl – Doris Marmon. Amelia’s conviction was based on these two victims.

At the trial, Mary Ann claimed that she had not known that the two children had died during that fateful visit. Amelia Dyer also exonerated her daughter of any blame in a letter while she was in prison, so Mary Ann walked free.

Two years later, in September 1898, a baby was found under the seat of a railway carriage at Newton Abbot, in South Devon. The three-week-old child was cold and exhausted, but alive. She was wrapped in a brown paper parcel.

Mary Ann Palmer, and her husband, were convicted of abandoning a child and sentenced to two months’ hard labour. The baby killer’s daughter had carried on her mother’s terrible trade.

 

 

Mary Ann Palmer at her mother's trial

Mary Ann Palmer at her mother’s trial

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  1. Find this story very interesting are you publishing a book on your fin dings ,in your own words.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Margaret and I’m really pleased that you enjoyed it. There has been so much interest in this local story that I have decided to write a short ebook about my findings, so it’s great to have your feedback too. I’ve started doing the research and I’ll let you know how I get on. Thanks again, Angela

      Reply
      • This is so interesting if not so gruesome but I do think you should write a whole book on this devious family!!!! If they made 50 shades a film (haven’t seen and no intention of seeing it!) I really do think that a film would be a blast!!!!! Pls carry on researching and writing because it’s just so interesting!!! Thanks.

        Reply
        • Thanks so much, Susan and I agree, it is a bit gruesome! I have started researching for a short ebook and will keep posting instalments as I uncover more of its sinister history. It would be amazing if there was ever a film about her! (I haven’t seen 50 Shades either!). Thanks again for your encouragement and I’ll keep you posted! Angela

          Reply
  2. Hi

    When I was a child my dad told me that his friend’s dad or granddad was one of the arresting policeman and he kept the original carpet bag after the trial. I if I didn’t dream it my dad took me to see a waxwork of Amelia in the chamber of horrors in Madam Tousourds. I have my dads friends name but didn’t like to post.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Sally – that’s really interesting and I wonder if the carpet bag is still in the family, or at least some photos of it. I thought I’d visit the Thames Valley police museum to see what artefacts they have. I haven’t been to Madame Tussauds but I thought too that Dyer was in the Chamber of Horrors – not sure if I’m brave enough to check!!

      Reply
    • Thanks, Chris – I shall take a look!

      Reply
  3. Last paragraph on Amelia Dyer said this :-
    “Subsequently, adoption laws were made stricter, giving local authorities the power to police baby farms in the hope of stamping out abuse. Despite this and the scrutinising of newspaper personal ads,the trafficking and abuse of infants did not stop. Two years after Dyer’s execution, railway workers inspecting carriages at Newton Abbot, Devon found a parcel. Inside was a three-week-old girl, but though cold and wet, she was alive. The daughter of a widow, Jane Hill, the baby had been given to a Mrs. Stewart, for £12. She had picked up the baby at Plymouth—and apparently dumped her on the next train. It has been claimed that “Mrs. Stewart” was Polly, the daughter of Amelia Dyer.”
    No doubt it was her and she assisted her mother but was it her.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Bill.

      Reply
  4. I’m glad I found you! I learned about Amelia Dyer several years ago and since then I have written a fiction novel based on Polly’s descent into crime and her relationship with her mother (now in its revision stages). It’s a fascinating, though gruesome, story and for years I’ve been plagued with the question: what happened to Polly and Arthur once their jail sentences were complete? A great mystery….
    Thank you for your article and I look forward to your e-book!

    Reply
    • Hi Michelle, thank you for getting in touch and it’s great to hear that you’ve been as intrigued by Dyer’s story as I have! I find it very frustrating too that all trace of Polly and Arthur disappears after their jail sentences. Perhaps one day some new information will come to light…

      Reply

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