“Baby-Farmers” and Advertising “Child Adopters.”—”F. X.” of Stepney.— The Author’s Interview with Farmer Oxleck.—The Case of Baby Frederick Wood.
Although it is not possible, in a book of moderate dimensions, such as this, to
treat the question of neglected children with that extended care and
completeness it undoubtedly deserves, any attempt at its consideration would be
glaringly deficient did it not include some reference to the modern and
murderous institution known as “baby farming.”
We may rely on it that we are lamentably ignorant both of the gigantic extent and the pernicious working of this mischief. It is only when some loud-crying abuse of the precious system makes itself heard in our criminal courts, and is echoed in the newspapers, or when some adventurous magazine writer in valiant pursuit of his avocation, directs his inquisitive nose in the direction indicated, that the public at large hear anything either of the farmer or the farmed.
A year or so ago a most atrocious child murder attracted towards this ugly subject the bull’s-eye beams of the press, and for some time it was held up and exhibited in all its nauseating nakedness. It may be safely asserted that during the protracted trial of the child murderess, Mrs. Winser, there was not one horrified father or mother in England who did not in terms of severest indignation express his or her opinion of how abominable it was that such scandalous traffic in baby flesh and blood should, through the law’s inefficiency, be rendered possible. But it was only while we, following the revolting revelations, were subject to a succession of shocks and kept in pain, that we were thus virtuous. It was only while our tender feelings were suffering excruciation from the harrowing story of baby torture that we shook in wrath against the torturer. Considering what our sufferings were (and from the manner of our crying out they must have been truly awful) we recovered with a speed little short of miraculous. Barely was the trial of the murderess concluded and the court cleared, than our fierce indignation subsided from its bubbling and boiling, and quickly settled down to calm and ordinary temperature. Nay it is hardly too much to say that our over-wrought sympathies as regards baby neglect and murder fell so cold and flat that little short of a second edition of Herod’s massacre might be required to raise them again.
This is the unhappy fate that attends nearly all our great social grievances. They are overlooked or shyly glanced at and kicked aside for years and years, when suddenly a stray spark ignites their smouldering heaps, and the eager town cooks a splendid supper of horrors at the gaudy conflagration; but having supped full, there ensues a speedy distaste for flame and smoke, and in his heart every one is chiefly anxious that the fire may burn itself out, or that some kind hand will smother it. “We have had enough of it.” That is the phrase. The only interest we ever had in it, which was nothing better than a selfish and theatrical interest, is exhausted. We enjoyed the bonfire amazingly, but we have no idea of tucking back our coat-sleeves and handling a shovel or a pick to explore the unsavoury depth and origin of the flareup, and dig and dam to guard against a repetition of it. It is sufficient for us that we have endured without flinching the sensational horrors dragged to light; let those who dragged them forth bury them again; or kill them; or be killed by them. We have had enough of them.
Great social grievances are not to be taken by storm. They merely bow their vile heads while the wrathful blast passes, and regain their original position immediately afterwards. So it was with this business of baby-farming, and the tremendous outcry raised at the time when the wretch Winser was brought to trial. There are certain newspapers in whose advertisement columns the baby-farmer advertises for “live stock” constantly, and at the time it was observed with great triumph by certain people that since the vile hag’s detection the advertisements in question had grown singularly few and mild. But the hope that the baby-farmer had retired, regarding his occupation as gone, was altogether delusive. He was merely lying quiet for a spell, quite at his ease, making no doubt that business would stir again presently. Somebody else was doing his advertising, that was all. If he had had any reasonable grounds for supposing that the results of the appalling facts brought to light would be that the Legislature would bestir itself and take prompt and efficacious steps towards abolishing him, it would have been different. But he had too much confidence in the sluggardly law to suppose anything of the kind. He knew that the details of the doings of himself and his fellows would presently sicken those who for a time had evinced a relish for them, and that in a short time they would bid investigators and newspapers say no more—they had had enough of it! When his sagacity was verified, he found his way leisurely back to the advertising columns again.
I have spoken of the baby-farmers as masculine, but that was merely for convenience of metaphor. No doubt that the male sex have a considerable interest in the trade, but the negociators, and ostensibly the proprietors, are women. As I write, one of the said newspapers lies before me. It is a daily paper, and its circulation, an extensive one, is essentially amongst the working classes, especially amongst working girls and women.
The words italicised are worth particular attention as regards this particular part of my subject. Here is a daily newspaper that is mainly an advertising broadsheet. It is an old-established newspaper, and its advertisement columns may be said fairly to reflect the condition of the female labour market over vast tracts of the London district. Column after column tells of the wants of servants and masters. “Cap-hands,” “feather-hands,” “artificial flower-hands,” “chenille-hands,” hands for the manufacture of “chignons” and “hair-nets” and “bead work,” and all manner of “plaiting” and “quillir.g” and “gauffering” in ribbon and net and muslin, contributing towards the thousand and one articles that stock the “fancy” trade. There are more newspapers than one that aspire as mediums between employers and employed, but this, before all others, is the newspaper, daily conned by thousands of girls and women in search of work of the kind above mentioned, and it is in this newspaper that the baby-farmer fishes wholesale for customers.
I write “wholesale,” and surely it is nothing else. To the uninitiated in this peculiar branch of the world’s wickedness it would seem that, as an article of negociation, a baby would figure rarer than anything, and in their innocence they might be fairly guided to this conclusion on the evidence of their personal experience of the unflinching love of parents, though never so poor, for their children; yet in a single number of this newspaper, published every day of the week and all the year round, be it borne in mind, appear no less than eleven separate advertisements, emanating from individuals solicitous for the care, weekly, monthly, yearly— anyhow, of other people’s children, and that on terms odorous of starvation at the least in every meagre figure.
It is evident at a glance that the advertisers seek for customers and expect none other than from among the sorely pinched and poverty-stricken class that specially patronise the newspaper in question. The complexion, tone, and terms of their villanously cheap suggestions for child adoption are most cunningly shaped to meet the possible requirements of some unfortunate work-girl, who, earning while at liberty never more than seven or eight shillings a week, finds herself hampered with an infant for whom no father is forthcoming. There can scarcely be imagined a more terrible encumbrance than a young baby is to a working girl or woman so circumstanced. Very often she has a home before her disaster announced itself—her first home, that is, with her parents —and in her shame and disgrace she abandons it, determined on hiding away where she is unknown, “keeping herself to herself.” She has no other means of earning a livelihood excepting that she has been used to. She is a “cap-hand,” or an “artificial flower-hand,” and such work is always entirely performed at the warehouse immediately under the employer’s eye. What is she to do? She cannot possibly carry her baby with her to the shop and keep it with her the livelong day. Were she inclined so to do, and could somehow contrive to accomplish the double duty of nurse and flower-weaver, it would not be allowed. If she stays at home in the wretched little room she rents with her infant she and it must go hungry. It is a terrible dilemma for a young woman “all but” good, and honestly willing to accept the grievous penalty she must pay if it may be accomplished by the labour of her hands. Small and puny, however, the poor unwelcome little stranger may be, it is a perfect ogre of rapacity on its unhappy mother’s exertions. Now and then an instance of the self-sacrificing devotion exhibited by those unhappy mothers for their fatherless children creeps into print. There was held in the parish of St. Luke’s, last summer, an inquest on the body of a neglected infant, aged seven months. The woman to whose care she was confided had got drunk, and left the poor little thing exposed to the cold, so that it died. The mother paid the drunken nurse four-and-sixpence a week for the child’s keep, and it was proved in evidence that she (the mother) had been earning at her trade of paper-bag making never more than six-and-threepence per week during the previous five months. That was four-and-sixpence for baby and one-and-ninepence for herself.
I don’t think, however, that the regular baby-farmer is a person habitually given to drink. The successful and lucrative prosecution of her business forbids the indulgence. Decidedly not one of the eleven advertisements before mentioned read like the concoctions of persons whose heads were muddled with beer or gin. Here is the first one:—
NURSE CHILD WANTED, OR TO ADOPT—The Advertiser, a Widow with a little family of her own, and a moderate allowance from her late husband’s friends, would be glad to accept the charge of a young child. Age no object. If sickly would receive a parent’s care. Terms, Fifteen Shillings a month; or would adopt entirely if under two months for the small sum of Twelve pounds.
are shrewder than men at understanding these matters, and the advertisement is
addressed to women; but I doubt if a man would be far wrong in setting down the
“widow lady with a little family of her own,” as one of those monsters in
woman’s clothing who go about seeking for babies to devour. Her “moderate
allowance,” so artlessly introduced, is intended to convey to the unhappy
mother but half resolved to part with her encumbrance, that possibly the
widow’s late husband’s friends settle her butcher’s and baker’s bills,
and that under such circumstances the widow would actually be that fifteen
shillings a month in pocket, for the small trouble of entering the little
stranger with her own interesting little flock. And what a well-bred,
cheerful, and kindly-behaved little flock it must be, to have no objection to
add to its number a young child aged one month or twelve, sick or well! Fancy
such an estimable person as the widow lady appraising her parental care at so
low a figure as three-and-ninepence a week—sevenpence farthing a day,
including Sundays! But, after all, that is not so cheap as the taking the whole
and sole charge of a child, sick or well, mind you, to nourish and clothe, and
educate it from the age of two months till twelve years, say! To be sure, the
widow lady stipulates that the child she is ready to “adopt” must be under
two months, and we all know how precarious is infantine existence, and at what
a wonderfully low rate the cheap undertakers bury babies in these days.
Another of the precious batch of eleven speaks plainer, and comes to the point without any preliminary walking round it:—
ADOPTION—A person wishing a lasting and comfortable home for a young child of either sex will find this a good opportunity. Advertisers having no children of their own are about to proceed to America. Premium, Fifteen Pounds. Respectable references given and required. Address F.X—.
that is incomplete in the above is the initials; but one need not ask for the
“0” that should come between the “F” and “X.” After perusing the
pithy advertisement, I interpreted its meaning simply this:--Any person
possessed of a child he is anxious to be rid of, here is a good chance for him.
Perhaps “F. X.” is going to America; perhaps he’s not. That is his business. The party having a child to dispose of, need not
trouble itself on that score. For respectable references” read “mutual
confidence.” I’ll take the child, and ask no questions of the party, and the
party shall fork over the fifteen pounds, and ask no questions of me. That will
make matters comfortable for both parties, ‘specially if the meeting is at a
coffee-house, or at some public building, for if I don’t know the party’s
address, of course he can have no fear that I shall turn round on him, and
return the child on his hands. The whole affair might be managed while an
omnibus is waiting to take up a passenger. A simple matter of handing over a
bulky parcel and a little one—the child and the money—and all over, without
so much as “good night,” if so be the party is a careful party, and
wouldn’t like even his voice heard.
It may be objected that the seduced factory girl is scarcely likely to become the victim of “F. X.,” inasmuch as she never had fifteen pounds to call her own in the whole course of her life, and is less likely than ever to grow so rich now. And that is quite true, but as well as a seduced, there must be a seducer. Not a man of position and means, probably; more likely the fast young son of parents in the butchering, or cheesemongering, or grocery interest —a dashing young blade, whose ideas of “seeing life” is seeking that unwholesome phase of it presented at those unmitigated dens of vice, the “music halls,” at one of which places, probably, the acquaintance terminating so miserably, was commenced. Or, may be, instead of the “young master, “it is the shopman who is the male delinquent; and, in either case, anything is preferable to a row,” and an exposure. Possibly the embarrassed young mother, by stress of necessity, and imperfect faith in the voluntary goodness of her lover, is driven to make the best of the defensive weapons that chance has thus placed in her hands, and her urging for “some little assistance” becomes troublesome. This being the case, and the devil stepping in with “F.X.’s” advertisement in his hand, the difficulty is immediately reduced to one of raising fifteen pounds. No more hourly anxiety lest “something should turn up” to explode the secret under the very nose of parents or master, no more restrictions from amusements loved so well because of a dread lest that pale-faced baby-carrying young woman should intrude her reproachful presence, and her tears, Into their midst. Only one endeavour—a big one, it is true, but still, only one—and the ugly ghost is laid at once and for ever! Perhaps the young fellow has friends of whom he can borrow the money. May bL he has a watch, and articles of clothing and jewellery, that will pawn for the amount. If he has neither, still he is not entirely without resources. Music-halls and dancing-rooms cannot be patronised on bare journeyman’s wages, and probably already the till has bled slightly—let it bleed more copiously! And the theft is perpetrated, and “F.X.” releases the guilty pair of the little creature that looks in its helplessness and innocence so little like a bugbear. And it isn’t at all unlikely that, after all, papa regards himself as a fellow deserving of condemnation, perhaps, but entitled to some pity, and, still more, of approval for his self-sacrificing. Another fellow, finding himself in such a fix, would have snapped his fingers in Polly’s face, and told her to do her worst, and be hanged to her; but, confound it all, he was not such a brute as that. Having got the poor girl into trouble, he had done all he could to get her out of it—clean out of it, mind you. Not only had he done all that he could towards this generous end, but considerably more than he ought; he had risked exposure as a thief, and the penalty of the treadmill, and all for her sake! And so thick-skinned is the young fellow’s morality, that possibly he is really not aware of the double-dyed villain he has become; that to strip his case of the specious wrappings in which he would envelop it, he is nothing better than a mean scoundrel who has stooped to till-robbery in order to qualify himself as an accessory to child murder, or worse—the casting of his own offspring, like a mangy dog, on the streets, to die in a gutter, or to live and grow up to be a terror to his kind—a ruffian, and a breeder of ruffians. Nor need it be supposed that this last is a mere fancy sketch. There can be no doubt that if the history of every one of the ten thousand of the young human pariahs that haunt London streets could be inquired into, it would be found that no insignificant percentage of the whole were children abandoned and left to their fate by mock “adopters,” such as “F. X.”
It is these “adopters” of children who should be specially looked after, since, assuming that heartless roguery is the basis of their business dealing, it becomes at once manifest that their main source of profit must lie in their ability to get rid of their hard bargains as soon as possible. From fifteen to five-and-twenty pounds would appear to be the sums usually asked, and having once got possession of the child, every day that the mockery of a bona fide bargain is maintained, the value of the blood-money that came with it diminishes. The term “blood-money,” however, should be accepted in a qualified sense. It is quite common for these people to mention as one of the conditions of treaty that a sickly child would not be objected to, and provided it were very sickly, it might in ordinary cases have a fair chance of dying a natural death; but the course commonly pursued by the professional childmonger is not to murder it either by sudden and violent means, or by the less merciful though no less sure process of cold, neglect, and starvation. Not only does death made public (and in these wide-awake times it is not easy to hide a body, though a little one, where it may not speedily be found) attract an amount of attention that were best avoided, but it also entails the expenses of burial. A much easier way of getting rid of a child,— especially if it be of that convenient age when it is able to walk but not to talk, is to convey it to a strange quarter of the town and there abandon it.
And there is something else in connection with this painful phase of the question of neglected children that should not be lost sight of. It must not be supposed that every child abandoned in the streets is discovered by the police and finds its way first to the station-house, and finally to the workhouse. Very many of them, especially if they are pretty-looking and engaging children, are voluntarily adopted by strangers. It might not be unreasonably imagined that this can only be the case when the cruel abandonment takes place in a neighbourhood chiefly inhabited by well-to-do people. And well would it be for the community at large if this supposition were the correct one; then there would be a chance that the poor neglected little waif would be well cared for and preserved against the barbarous injustice of being compelled to fight for his food even before he had shed his milk-teeth. But wonderful as it may seem, it is not in well-to-do quarters that the utterly abandoned child finds protection, but in quarters that are decidedly the worst to do, and that, unfortunately, in every possible respect than any within the city’s limits. The tender consideration of poverty for its kind is a phase of humanity that might be studied both with instruction and profit by those who, through their gold-rimmed spectacles regard deprivation from meat and clothes and the other good things of this world as involving a corresponding deficiency of virtue and generosity. They have grown so accustomed to associate cherubs with chubbiness, and chubbiness with high respectability and rich gravies, that they would, if such a thing were possible, scarcely be seen conversing with an angel of bony and vulgar type. Nevertheless, it is an undoubted fact, that for one child taken from the streets in the highly respectable West-end, and privately housed and taken care of, there might be shown fifty who have found open door and lasting entertainment in the most poverty-stricken haunts of London.
In haunts of vice too, in hideous localities inhabited solely by loose women and thieves. Bad as these people are, they will not deny a hungry child. It is curious the extent to which this lingering of nature’s better part remains with these “bad women.” Love for little children in these poor creatures seems unconquerable. It would appear as though conscious of the extreme depth of degradation to which they have fallen, and of the small amount of sympathy that remains between them and the decent world, they were anxious to hold on yet a little longer, although by so slender a thread as unreasoning childhood affords. As everyone can attest, whose duty it has been to explore even the most notorious sinks of vice and criminality, it is quite common to meet with pretty little children, mere infants of three or four years old, who are the pets and toys of the inhabitants, especially of the women. The frequent answer to the inquiry, “Who does the child belong to?” is, “Oh, he’s anybody’s child,” which sometimes means that it is the offspring of one of the fraternity who has died or is now in prison, but more often that he is a “stray” who is fed and harboured there simply because nobody owns him.
But as may be easily understood, the reign of “pets” of this sort is of limited duration. By the time the curly-headed little boy of four years old grows to be six, he must indeed be an inapt scholar if his two years’ attendance at such a school has not turned his artless simplicity into mischievous cunning, and his ‘pretty ways into those that are both audacious and tiresome. Then clubbing takes the place of caressing, and the child is gradually left to shift for himself, and we meet him shortly afterwards an active and intelligent nuisance, snatching his hard-earned crust out of the mire as a crossing sweeper, fusee, or penny-paper selling boy, or else more evilly inclined, he joins other companions and takes up the trade of a whining beggar. Even at that tender age his eyes are opened to the ruinous fact that as much may be got by stealing as by working, and he “tails on,” a promising young beginner, to the army of twenty thousand professional thieves that exact black mail in London.
Supposing it to be true, and for my part I sincerely believe it, that the ranks of neglected children who eventually become thieves, are recruited in great part from the castaways of the mock child adopter, then is solved the puzzle how it is that among a class the origin of almost every member of which can be traced back to the vilest neighbourhood of brutishness and ignorance, so many individuals of more than the average intellect are discovered. Any man who has visited a reformatory for boys must have observed this. Let him go into the juvenile ward or the school-room of a workhouse, either in town or country, and he will find four-fifths of the lads assembled wearing the same heavy stolid look, indicative of the same desperate resignation to the process of learning than which for them could hardly be devised a punishment more severe. But amongst a very large proportion of the boys who have been rescued not merely from the gutter but out of the very jaws of the criminal law, and bestowed in our reformatories, how different is their aspect! Quick-witted, ready of comprehension, bold-eyed, shrewdly-observant, one cannot but feel that it is a thousand pities that such boys should be driven to this harbour of refuge—that so much good manhood material should come so nigh to being wrecked. But how is it that with no more promising nurses than squalor and ignorance the boys of the reformatory should show so much superior to the boys whom a national institution, such as a workhouse is, has adopted, and had all to do with since their infancy? The theory that many of the boys who by rapid steps in crime find their way to a reformatory, are bastard children, for whose safe-keeping the baby farmer was once briefly responsible, goes far towards solving the riddle. The child-adopting fraternity is an extensive one, and finds clients in all grades of society, and there can be little doubt that in instances innumerable, while Alley Jack is paying the penalty of his evil behaviour by turning for his bread on the treadmill, his brothers, made legitimate by the timely reformation and marriage of Alley Jack’s father, are figuring in their proper sphere, and leisurely and profitably developing the intellect they inherit from their brilliant papa. Alley Jack, too, has his share of the family talent—all the brain, all the sensitiveness, all the “blood” of the respectable stock a reckless sprig of which is responsible for Jack’s being. It is only in the nature of things to suppose that Jack’s blood is tainted with the wildness of wicked papa; and here we have in Alley Jack a type of that bold intellectual villain whose clique of fifty or so, as Lord Shaftesbury recently declared, is more to be dreaded than as many hundred of the dull and plodding sort of thief, the story of whose exploits figure daily in the newspapers.
We have, however, a little wandered away from the subject in hand, which is not concerning neglected children who have become thieves, but neglected children, simply, whose future is not as yet ascertained. Speaking of the professional child farmer, it has been already remarked that his sole object, as regards these innocents that are adopted for a sum paid down, is to get rid of them as secretly and quickly as possible. And assuming the preservation of health and life in the little mortal to be of the first importance, there can be no question that he has a better chance of both, even though his treacherous “adopter” deserts him on a doorstep, than if he were so kindly cruel as to tolerate his existence at the “farm.” It is those unfortunate infants who are not “adopted,” but merely housed and fed at so much per week or month, who are the greater sufferers. True, it is to the interest of the practitioners who adopt this branch of baby-farming to keep life in their little charges, since with their death terminates the more or less profitable contract entered into between themselves and the child’s parent or guardian; but no less true is it that it is to the “farmers’ “interest and profit to keep down their expenditure in the nursery at as low an ebb as is consistent with the bare existence of its luckless inhabitants. The child is welcome to live on starvation diet just as long as it may. It is very welcome indeed to do so, since the longer it holds out, the larger the number of shillings the ogres that have it in charge will be enabled to grind out of its poor little bones. These are not the “farmers” who append to their advertisements the notification that “children of ill-health are not objected to.” They are by far too good judges for that. What they rejoice in is a fine, robust, healthy-lunged child, with whom some such noble sum as a shilling a day is paid. Such an article is as good as a gift of twenty pounds to them. See the amount of privation such a child can stand before it succumbs! The tenacity of life in children of perfectly sound constitution is proverbial. A ha’p’orth of bread, and a ha’p’orth of milk daily will suffice to keep the machinery of life from coming to a sudden standstill. By such a barely sufficient link will the poor little helpless victim be held to life, while what passes as natural causes attack and gradually consume it, and drag it down to its grave. This, in the baby-farmer’s estimation, is a first-rate article—the pride of the market, and without doubt the most profitable. The safest too. Children will pine. Taken from their mother, it is only to be expected that they should. Therefore, when the poor mother, who is working of nights as well as days, that “nurse’s money” may be punctually paid, visits her little one, and finds it thin and pale and wasting, she is not amazed, although her conscience smites her cruelly, and her heart is fit to break. She is only too thankful to hear “nurse” declare that she is doing all she can for the little darling. It is her only consolation, and she goes away hugging it while “nurse” and her old man make merry over gin bought with that hard, hard-earned extra sixpence that the poor mother has left to buy baby some little comfort.
I trust and hope that what is here set down will not be regarded as mere tinsel and wordy extravagance designed to produce a “sensation” in the mind of the reader. There is no telling into whose hands a book may fall. Maybe, it is not altogether impossible eyes may scan this page that have been recently red with weeping over the terrible secret that will keep but a little longer, and for the inevitable launching of which provision must be made. To such a reader, with all kindliness, I would whisper words of counsel. Think now “twice,” but many times before you adopt the “readiest” means of shirking the awful responsibility you have incurred. Rely on it, you will derive no lasting satisfaction out of this “readiest” way, by which, of course, is meant the way to which the villanous child-farmer reveals an open door. Be righteously courageous, and take any step rather, as you would I am sure if you were permitted to raise a corner and peep behind the curtain that conceals the hidden mysteries of adopted-child murder.
As a volunteer explorer into the depths of social mysteries, once upon a time I made it my business to invade the den of a child-farmer. The result of the experiment was printed in a daily newspaper or magazine at the time, so I will here make but brief allusion to it. I bought the current number of the newspaper more than once here mentioned, and discovering, as usual, a considerable string of child-adopting and nursing advertisements, I replied to the majority of them, professing to have a child “on my hands,” and signing myself “M. D.” My intention being to trap the villains, I need not say that in every case my reply to their preliminary communications was couched in such carefully-considered terms as might throw the most suspicious off their guard. But I found that I had under-estimated the cunning of the enemy. Although the innocent-seeming bait was made as attractive and savoury as possible, at least half of the farmers to whom my epistles were addressed vouchsafed no reply. There was something about it not to their liking, evidently.
Three or four of the hungry pike bit, however, one being a lady signing herself “Y. Z.” In her newspaper advertisement, if I rightly remember, persons whom it concerned were to address, “Y. Z.,” Post Office, Street, Stepney. “Y. Z.” replying to mine so addressed, said that, as before stated, she was willing to adopt a little girl of weakly constitution at the terms I suggested, her object being chiefly to secure a companion for her own little darling, who had lately, through death, been deprived of his own dear little sister. “Y. Z.” further suggested that I should appoint a place where we could “meet and arrange.”
This, however, was not what I wanted. It was quite evident from the tone of the lady’s note that she was not at all desirous that the meeting should take place at her abode. Again I was to address, “Post Office.” To bring matters to a conclusion, I wrote, declaring that nothing could be done unless I could meet “Y. Z.” at her own abode. No answer was returned to this my last, and it was evidently the intention of “Y. Z.” to let the matter drop.
I was otherwise resolved, however. I had some sort of clue, and was resolved to follow it up. By what subtle arts and contrivance I managed to trace “Y. Z.” from “Post Office” to her abode need not here be recited. Armed with her real name and the number of the street in which she resided, I arrived at the house, and at the door of it just as the postman was rapping to deliver a letter to the very party I had come uninvited to visit. I may say that the house was of the small four or five-roomed order, and no more or less untidy or squalid than is commonly to be found in the back streets of Stepney or Bethnal Green.
“Oxleek” was the original of “Y. Z.,” and of the slatternly, ragged-haired girl who opened the door I asked if that lady was at home. The young woman said that she was out—that she had “gone to the Li-ver.” The young woman spoke with a rapid utterance, and was evidently in a mighty hurry to get back to some business the postman’s knock had summoned her from.
“I beg your pardon, miss, gone to the —“
“Li-ver; where you pays in for young uns’ berryins and that,” she responded; “she ain’t at home, but he is. I’ll call him.”
And so she did. And presently a husky voice from the next floor called out, “Hullo! what is it?”
“Here’s a gentleman wants yer, and here’s a letter as the postman jest left.”
“Ask him if he’s the doctor; I’ve got the young un, I can’t come down,” the husky voice was again heard to exclaim.
To be sure I was not a doctor, not a qualified practitioner that is to say, but as far as the Oxleek family knew me I was “M.D.;” and pacifying my grumbling conscience with this small piece of .jesuitism, I blandly nodded my head to the young woman when she recited to me Mr. Oxleek ‘s query.
“Then you’d better go up, and p’raps you wouldn’t mind taking this letter up with you,” said she.
I went up; it was late in the evening and candlelight, in the room on the next floor that is, but not on the stairs; but had it been altogether dark, I might have discovered Mr. Oxleek by the Stench of his tobacco. I walked in at the half-open door.
There was Mr. Oxleek by the fire, the very perfection of an indolent, ease-loving, pipe-smoking, beer-soaking wretch as ever sat for his portrait. He was a man verging on fifty, I should think, with a pair of broad shoulders fit to carry a side of beef, and as greasy about the cuffs and collar of his tattered jacket as though at some early period of his existence he had carried sides of beef. But that must have been many years ago, for the grease had all worn black with age, and the shoulders of the jacket were all fretted through by constant friction against the back of the easy-chair he sat in. He wore slippers—at least, he wore one slipper; the other one, all slouched down at heel, had slipped off his lazy foot a few inches too far for easy recovery, and there it lay. A villanously dirty face had Mr. Oxleek, and a beard of at least a month’s growth. It was plain to be seen that one of Mr. Oxleek’s most favourite positions of sitting was with his head resting against that part of the wall that was by the side of the mantelshelf, for there, large as a dinner plate, was the black greasy patch his dirty hair had made. He had been smoking, for there, still smouldering, was his filthy little pipe on the shelf, and by the side of it a yellow jug all streaked and stained with ancient smears of beer.
He was not quite unoccupied, however; he was nursing a baby! He, the pipe-sucking, beer-swigging, unshaven, dirty, lazy ruffian, was nursing a poor little creature less than a year old, as I should judge, with its small, pinched face reposing against his ragged waistcoat, in the pocket of which his tobacco was probably kept. The baby wore its bedgown, as though it had once been put to bed, and roused to be nursed. It was a very old and woefully begrimed bedgown, bearing marks of Mr. Oxleek’s dirty paws, and of his tobacco dust, and of physic clumsily administered and spilt. It would appear too much like “piling up the agony” did I attempt to describe that baby’s face. It was the countenance of an infant that had cried itself to sleep, and to whom pain was so familiar, that it invaded its dreams, causing its mites of features to twitch and quiver so that it would have been a mercy to wake it.
“Evening, sir; take a cheer!” remarked Mr. Oxleek, quite hospitably; “this is the young un, sir.”
It was very odd. Clearly there was a great mistake somewhere, and yet as far as they had gone, the proceedings were not much at variance with the original text. I was “M.D.,” and a doctor was expected. “This was the young un,” Mr. Oxleek declared, and a young one, a bereaved young one who had lost his darling playmate, was a prominent feature in his wife’s letter to me.
“Oh, is that the young one?” I remarked.
“Yes; a heap of trouble; going after the last, I’m afeard.”
“The same symptoms, eh?”
“Just the same. Reg’ler handful she is, and no mistake.”
This then was not the “young un” Mrs. Oxleek had written about. This was a girl, it seemed.
“Pray, how long is it since a medical man saw the child?” I inquired, I am afraid in a tone that roused suspicion in Mr. Oxleek’s mind.
“Oh, you know, when he came last week—you’re come instead of him? You <>have come instead of him, haven’t you?”
“No, indeed,” I replied. “I’ve come to talk about that advertisement of yours.”
Mr. Oxleek for a moment looked blank, but only for a moment.
He saw the trap just as he was about to set his foot in it, and withdrew in time.
“Not here,” he remarked, impudently.
“But I must beg your pardon, it is here. You forget. I wrote to you as M.D.”
By this time Mr. Oxleek had seized and lit his short pipe, and was puffing away at it with great vigour.
“You’re come to the wrong shop, I tell you,” he replied, from behind the impenetrable cloud; “we don’t know no ‘M.D.’ nor nor M. anythink; it’s a mistake.”
“Perhaps if I show you your wife’s writing, you will be convinced?”
“No, I shan’t; it’s all a mistake, I tell you.”
I sat down on a chair.
“Will your wife be long before she returns?” I inquired.
“Can’t say—oh, here she comes; now p’raps you’ll believe that you’re come to the wrong shop. My dear, what do we know about M.D.’s, or advertising, eh?”
Mrs. Oxleek was a short, fat woman, with a sunny smile on her florid face, and a general air of content about her. She had brought in with her a pot of beer and a quantity of pork sausages for Supper.
“Nothing,” she repeated instantly, taking the cue, “who says that we do?”
“This gentleman’s been a tacklin’ me a good ‘un, I can tell you! says that he’s got your writing to show for summat or other.”
“Where is my writing?” asked Mrs. Oxleek, defiantly.
“This is it, if I am not mistaken, ma’am.” And I displayed it.
“Ah! that’s where it is, you see,” said she, with a triumphant Chuckle, “you are mistaken. You are only wasting your time, my good sir. My name isn’t ‘Y. Z.,’ and never was. Allow me to light you down-stairs, my good sir.”
And I did allow her. What else could I do? At the same time, and although my investigations led to nothing at all, I came away convinced, as doubtless the reader is, that there was no “Mistake,” and that Mr. and Mrs. Oxleek were of the tribe of ogres who fatten on little children.
Singularly enough, as I revise these pages for the press, there appears in the newspapers a grimly apt illustration of the above statement. So exactly do the details of the case in question bear out the arguments used in support of my views of baby-farming, that I will take the liberty of setting the matter before the reader just as it was set before the coroner.
“An investigation of a singular character was held by Mr. Richards on Thursday night, at the Lord Campbell Tavern, Bow, respecting the death of Frederick Wood, aged two years and three months.
“Miss A. W—, of Hoxton, said deceased was a sickly child, and ten months ago witness took it to Mrs. Savill, of 24, Swayton Road, Bow. She paid her four-and-sixpence a week to take care of the child. She never saw more than two other babies at Mrs. Savill’s house. She thought her child was thoroughly attended to. The deceased met with an accident and its thigh was broken, but the doctor said that the witness need not put herself out in the slightest degree, for the child was getting on very well. Witness could not get away from business more than once a week to see the child. She had not seen the child for five weeks.
“Mrs. Caroline Savill said she was the wife of a porter in the city. The deceased had been with her ten months. She put him to bed at nine o’clock on Saturday night, and at half-past eight on Sunday morning she said to her daughter, ‘He looks strange,’ and then she put a looking-glass to his mouth and found that he was dead.
“By the Coroner: She could account for the broken thigh. Last October when she was taking deceased up to bed, she slipped down and fell upon the child. She was quite certain that she was sober. It was a pair of old boots that caused her to slip. She had eleven children to keep at Bow.
“A Juryman: You keep, in fact, a baby-farm?
“Witness: That I must leave to your generosity, gentlemen. In continuation, witness stated that out of the eleven children five had died. There had been no inquest on either of them. The deceased’s bed was an egg-box with some straw in it. The egg-box was a short one, and was sixteen inches wide. The child could not turn in it. She never tied deceased’s legs together. She never discovered that the child’s thigh was broken till the morning following the night when she fell on it. He cried and she put him to bed. She fell upon the edge of the stairs and her weight was on him. She sent for a doctor next day.
“Doctor Atkins said he was called to see the dead body of the deceased last Sunday. The child had a malformed chest. Death had arisen from effusion of serum on the brain from natural causes, and not from neglect. Witness had attended the deceased for the broken thigh. He believed that the bones had not united when death took place.
“The jury, after a long consultation, returned a verdict of ‘death from natural causes;’ and they wished to append a censure, but the coroner refused to record it.”
That is the whole of the pretty story of which the reader must be left to form his own opinion. Should that opinion insist on a censure as one of its appendages, the reader must of course be held personally responsible for it. It is all over now. The poor little victim whom a Miss of his name placed with the Bow “child-farmer,” “by leave of your generosity, gentlemen,” is dead and buried. It would have been a mercy when his unsteady nurse fell on and crushed him on the edge of the stairs, if she had crushed his miserable life out, instead of only breaking a thigh. Since last October, with one small leg literally in the grave, he must have had a dismal time of it, poor little chap, and glad, indeed, must his spirit have been when its clay tenement was lifted out of his coffin cradle— the egg-box with the bit of straw in it—and consigned to the peaceful little wooden house that the cemetery claimed. It is all over with Frederick John Wood; and his mamma, or whoever she was who was at liberty only once a week to come and see him, is released from the crushing burden his maintenance imposed on her, and Mrs. Savill by this time has doubtless filled up the egg-box the little boy’s demise rendered vacant. Why should she not, when she left the coroner’s court without a stain on her character? It is all over. The curtain that was raised just a little has been dropped again, and the audience has dispersed, and nobody will think again of the tragedy the darkened stage is ready to produce again at the shortest notice, until the coroner’s constable rings the bell and the curtain once more ascends.
And so we shall go on, unless the law steps in to our aid. Why does it not do so? It is stringent and vigilant enough as regards inferior animals It has a stern eye for pigs, and will not permit them to be kept except on certain inflexible conditions. It holds dogs in leash, and permits them to live only as contributors to Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue. It holds its whip over lodging-house keepers, and under frightful pains and penalties they may not swindle a lodger of one out of his several hundred regulation feet of air; but it takes no heed of the cries of its persecuted babes and sucklings. Anyone may start as a professed adopter of children. Anyone however ignorant, and brutal, and given to slipping down stairs, may start as a baby-farmer, with liberty to do as she pleases with the helpless creatures placed in her charge. What she pleases first of all to do, as a matter of course, is to pare down the cost of her charge’s keep, so that she may make a living of the parings. As has been seen, she need not even find them beds to lie on; if she be extra economical, an egg-box with a handful of straw will do as well.
And is there no remedy for this? Would it not be possible, at least, to issue licences to baby-keepers as they are at present issued to cow-keepers? It may appear a brutal way of putting the matter, but it becomes less so when one considers how much at present the brutes have the best of it.