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.