Adoption. – More than meets the eye?

On October 11, 1870, Margaret Waters was hanged for murder. What was her crime? Baby farming.

A Little Background

What exactly was baby farming? During Victorian times,  women often sent a newborn child to another home for the purpose of wet-nursing, foster care, or even adoption. With wet-nursing, children were returned to their parents after it had been weaned; therefore, parents had the expectation that they’d see their child again. Children who were given up for adoption generally came directly from unwed mothers or their family members, such as a father, due to the social stigma associated with illegitimacy. People who accepted these children, often other women, were called baby farmers.

Many of the women who accepted these illegitimate children did it for profit. Some of these women realized they could make more money if they disposed of the children. More children coming in meant more money, and if a child died, that meant there were fewer expenses.

Brixton Baby Farmers

Margaret Waters and her sister, Sarah Ellis, came up with a scheme where they advertised in newspapers like Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper with posts such as: “Adoption.—A respectable couple desire the entire charge of a child to bring up as their own. They are in a position to offer every comfort. Premium required, 4l. Letter only. Mrs. Willis, P.O., Southampton Street, Camberwell.

This exact advertisement was posted on 1 May 1870 and answered by Robert Tassie Cowen. Cowen’s unwed, teenage daughter, Janet, was due to give birth in two weeks and he was looking for someone to take the baby. He met with Waters, who was posing as M. Willis. She agreed to take the baby. Janet gave birth to a baby boy, registered as John Walter, on May 14. On May 17, Waters took the baby.

Waters’s Advertisement in Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, 1 May 1870.

The Plot Thickens

Now this is where the story gets even more convoluted. Robert Cowen was contacted less than a month later by a police officer named Richard Relf. Relf had been investigating suspicious activity involving child adoption and had come across an ad similar to the one Cowen had answered. Together, they identified Ellis because she was wearing the same clothing Waters had worn when she met with Cowen. Relf and Cowen followed Ellis home to 4 Frederick Terrace in Brixton.

On June 11, the authorities entered the sisters’ house and found ten children, ranging in age from a few weeks to a few years old. Many of these children were emaciated. Among them was John Walter Cowen. Upon further inspection, laudanum was found on the premises, leading authorities to believe that the sisters starved the children and drugged them to quiet their cries.

Image of Margaret Waters from the 15 October 1870 issue of Illustrated Police News. Obtained from

When questioned, Waters told Cowen the baby was wasting away because he had not paid her the full amount she had requested in the advertisement (£4). However, Cowen said that during one of their meetings she told him she would waive her fee. John Walter Cowen was still alive when he was found, but he did not survive long. He died on June 24 after attempts to nurse him back to health failed. Four of the other infants found with Baby Cowen also died in a three-week span following his death. Despite the other deaths, Waters only went to trial for the murder of John Walter Cowen.

The courts tried Waters and Ellis on 19 September 1870. Sarah Ellis was found guilty of fraud and sentenced to eighteen months of hard labour. Margaret Waters was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. She was hanged on October 11, 1870.

The Story in the Media

So what does this tell us about the practice of baby farming in general? Well, we know that it was a not uncommon occurrence that the police allocated manpower to following leads. We also know that it was a sensational topic to the Victorians since multiple newspapers covered the Margaret Waters story leading up to and following her execution. Did everyone believe her to be guilty? Apparently not. The Northern Echo from Darlington, believed that a death sentence was too extreme. Although it was never discussed in her trial, some people claimed she started the business as a byproduct of her own poverty. This made her case a rather controversial one.


“Adoption.” Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, May 1, 1870; Issue 1432. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.

“Magaret Waters.” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey: London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913, 19 September 1870.

“The Case of Margaret Waters.” Northern Echo (Darlington, England), Saturday, October 8, 1870; Issue 240. British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900.