Mention Victorian crime in Reading and most people immediately think of Mrs Dyer, an unscrupulous baby farmer and one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. When I moved to Caversham, close to the spot in the river Thames where Dyer disposed of her infant victims, it was this shocking case that first drew me into writing about 19th century crime.
On 30 March 1896, a bargeman was navigating his cargo down the River Thames at Reading, just past Caversham Lock. As he passed the wooden footbridge known as the Clappers (pictured above), he spotted a parcel drifting in the water. He unhooked it to get a closer look, unprepared for the gruesome contents that lay inside. He pulled back the thick layer of sodden flannel to reveal a tiny human foot. In the parcel was the body of a baby girl; she had been strangled with white tape that had been tied twice around her neck and knotted under her left ear. The police would soon find that her horrific injuries would form a sinister pattern.
On the sodden parcel was a name and address – Mrs Thomas, 26 Piggotts Road, Caversham. When the police inquired at the property, Mrs ‘Thomas’ had already moved on. According to her neighbours, she was a respectable woman, who ‘did not excite suspicion’. A mail clerk at Reading station informed Detective Constable James Anderson that Mrs Thomas, whose real name was Amelia Dyer, was now living in Kensington Road, off Oxford Road, near to Reading Union workhouse.
Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, also known as ‘Annie’ and often using a string of different aliases, had arrived in Caversham in the summer of 1895 with her daughter, Mary Ann, and son-in-law, Arthur Ernest Palmer. Dyer had been plying her trade as a baby farmer for some 30 years: she advertised in the local newspapers for foster children, offering to look after them for a fee. This was a common practice in Victorian England, and most baby farmers honoured their commitment to parents but some neglected their young charges, drugging them and leaving them to waste away, whilst pocketing the proceeds. Dyer took this one step further, and strangled them.
The police arrested Amelia Dyer on 3 April 1896, at her home in Kensington Road. Dyer identified the parcel, but claimed to be unaware of its contents: ‘I do not know anything about it, it’s all a mystery to me.’ The officers found pawn tickets for children’s clothing, letters from parents and vaccination certificates in the house. In her sewing basket they discovered white tape, such as had been tied around her victims’ tiny necks. Further searches of the River Thames at Caversham yielded six more infant corpses.
The trial took place at the Old Bailey on 18 May, where Dyer was charged with the wilful murder of Doris Marmon, the five-month-old daughter of barmaid, Evelina Marmon. A single mother, Evelina had advertised in the Bristol Times for a nurse to care for her child, whilst she continued working. In the same publication a Mrs Harding had placed an advertisement for fostering. After a short correspondence, Mrs Harding, aka Amelia Dyer, arranged to meet Evelina Marmon, who agreed to her daughter’s adoption. Wrapped in a warm blanket and with her nappies and clothes packed, little Doris was handed over to the matronly Mrs Harding: ‘She appeared to be an affectionate woman…I was satisfied with her looks.’ The next time Evelina heard of her child was when she identified her body at Reading police station 11 days later.
Amelia Dyer, 57, was convicted, and hanged at Newgate on 10 June 1896. As the newspapers reported, ‘Death was apparently instantaneous and infinitely more merciful than the slow strangulation which she practised.’ It is not known how many babies Dyer murdered but, as she had been taking in children for at least three decades, the final toll could have been in the hundreds.
The only traces left in Caversham of these forgotten infants were crosses engraved on the wooden handrail of the Clappers bridge, which is no longer there. Many more murders may have been committed by Reading’s baby killer, and we will never know how many vulnerable infants met their fate at her cruel hands.