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Although this blog is primarily about the Irish families who went to Stafford in the nineteenth century, the experiences of the Irish were often similar to those of the English amongst whom they settled. Some people in this post did have Irish roots but the prime aim here is wider – to explore common circumstances that arose in poor working class families of all types, both English and Irish. The miseries that went with illegitimacy and premature death were horrifically exposed in Stafford by the 1872 ‘baby farming’ case.

The details were graphically reported in the Staffordshire Advertiser:

‘Baby farming – revolting disclosures’

‘At the Police Court on Wednesday John Hawkins, 63, and his wife Sarah Hawkins, 37, were charged with endangering the life and health of a child, Clara Litton, 16 months. Hawkins is a former grave-digger. A shoemaker named Dolan some few months ago lost his wife by death. He sent his family out to nurse; one child was taken by Hawkins at 2s 6d a week. On Monday a friend of Dolan named Perry, anxious about the welfare of the child, went to Hawkins’s residence in Startin’s Court, New Street. Mrs Perry found the child “so deplorably filthy and emaciated, with shoals of vermin swarming over it, that she at once removed it to the police office whence it was conveyed to Mrs Perry’s where, notwithstanding every attention, the child, which is aptly described as a living skeleton, is not expected to live.” Police Inspector Bowen and H.T. Lomax, surgeon, went to the Hawkins’s. They found seated in a chair an illegitimate child called Emily Adams, about 14 months old. She was sent three months ago by her mother. She “seemed much reduced” and was removed by the mother. Bowen and Lomax went upstairs. It was “a loathsome and disgusting sight.” From the room proceeded an effluvium … sickening … a sense of squalid misery and destitution … Scattered around the room the accumulated filth of years while there were three chamber utensils overflowing. These, with a washstand basin (in which was gathered the loathsome filth of weeks) and an old rickety bed, were the only articles of furniture in the place, over which human excreta was profusely scattered.


Startin’s Court behind New Street, Stafford. The arrow shows the probable house occupied by John and Sarah Hawkins.

‘At the foot of the bed lay huddled what seemed to be a human being. Its bed was a small filthy bag on which it had been lying for months and into which it had sunk like a sickly pig in a wallow. Over the little human creature was an old sack and on the bed and child and sack vermin crawled in hideous composure while the child’s hair was matted in its own filth. The little sufferer, whose name was Clara Litton, wearily endeavoured to concentrate its gaze on its unusual visitors. She was taken to the Police Office. She was 16 months old and weighed only 8lbs. She had not been washed for months. She was taken to the Workhouse.

‘Various rumours are afloat regarding the connection that may have subsisted between baby-farming and grave-digging.’ [1]

On 23 March the Advertiser reported further details about Thomas Dolan’s child. He had been two months old when he was sent to the Hawkins’s house because his mother was ill in the Infirmary. When the child was taken away it was “a mere skeleton. It was convulsed and seemed as if it had not had sufficient food while there were vermin bites on it”. Mrs Perry said “the back parts were in a pitiable condition from the filth not having been washed away, while its head was eaten away with vermin and not yet clean. It was so weak it could scarcely cry.”[2] She later said “the noise it made in crying was more like that of a fowl than a human being.”[3]

John and Sarah Hawkins were committed for trial at the Quarter Sessions accused of endangering the lives of Thomas Phillip Dolan, Emily Adams and Clara Litton. It was reported that they were receiving 2s 6d a week for each of the children boarded with them and that Sarah Hawkins had also worked as a boot binder for many years at the shoe factory of Elley, Gibson and Woolley. Her average earnings were 3s 4½d a week. John Hawkins was employed casually by two pub landlords, earning 4s 6d a week as well as another 1s 10d from cleaning Christ Church. It was said that he was “seldom at home” whilst Sarah claimed that while “I am guilty of not being clean … I have fed the children properly and well.”[4]

John and Sarah Hawkins were inevitably found guilty but their prison sentences – two years for her and eighteen months for him – seem pretty light in view of the seriousness of the case. After their release the couple returned to their miserable dwelling in Startin’s Court and they were still living there in 1881, although after that the trail goes cold. That fact underlines that it can be very difficult for historians to fully expose and interpret the actions of people in the nineteenth century who were alienated from the state’s crude control and data gathering functions and who often had every reason to obscure or lie about their activities. Furthermore, news reporters in those days were often as careless and cavalier about the facts as their modern counterparts. It can be difficult to weave a coherent and soundly based story from a number of scattered and often contradictory facts.

Poor Thomas ‘Dolan’ did not survive. He died and was buried with Catholic rites at Stafford Cemetery on 13 June 1872, just three months after his deliverance from the horrors of the Hawkins’s house.[5] But the newspaper never got his family’s name right. It was Doran, not Dolan. The confusion probably arose through a careless journalist who knew about an established Irish ‘Dolan’ family in Stafford and assumed Thomas was another of the clan. Thomas Doran did indeed have Irish roots but his father Thomas Phillip Doran had been born in Chester in 1851, the child of shoemakers from Ireland who probably came to Britain during the Famine.[6] When he grew up Thomas also became a shoemaker and that explains his arrival in Stafford around 1871. At the time of the Census that year he was boarding in Sash Street with 71 year-old Mary Bromley, a widowed domestic servant, but shortly after he returned to Chester to marry Annie Simpson, a young servant girl in the city.[7]  She may already have been pregnant because baby Thomas was born in Stafford early in 1872.[8] The couple set up house in Tenterbanks but, as we know, Thomas’s mother became ill and may have died soon after the birth – the newspaper reports are contradictory. No record has been traced of her death, however. All we know is that Thomas senior ended up with a child he either couldn’t or didn’t want to look after and so he was dumped in the Hawkins’s baby farm. Mrs Perry’s ministrations failed to save him and his father became a free agent to begin his life again. He left Stafford and perhaps returned to his roots in Cheshire but the evidence is unclear about his subsequent life.

The two other children involved in the Hawkins baby farm had equally sad circumstances. Clara Litton was born in January 1871, the daughter of Joseph and Clara Litton. Joseph Litton was a labourer struggling on an insecure and mediocre income. Mother Clara already had three young children to look after but around the time of baby Clara’s birth she died, perhaps in childbirth itself.[9] Joseph was left with a helpless new-born baby and three existing children aged between three and six, and his response was to immediately leave baby Clara with a couple close by in the Broad Eye who were running what suspiciously looks like a baby farm. This was the household of George and Elizabeth Fisher and at the 1871 Census we find Clara Litton in the house along with three other unrelated babies aged between two months and one year.[10] Some time over the next year Joseph Litton moved his baby daughter across town to the Hawkins’s dreadful place where she was discovered in March 1872. Perhaps the Hawkins couple charged less than the Fishers. She never recovered from the neglect and misery she had experienced there and died around eighteen months later. [11]

Clara Litton and Thomas Doran died as a direct result of the loss of their mothers and the inability and/or unwillingness of their fathers to look after them. They were the victims of family breakdown due to premature parental death, a common experience in Victorian Britain. Also common was the victimisation of illegitimate children and their mothers, and that was the fate of the other child found at the Hawkins’s house, Emily Adams. Her mother was Mary Adams, an eighteen year-old servant from a farm labourer’s family in the countryside around Penkridge (south of Stafford). In 1871 Mary and her three month-old daughter were ‘visitors’ in the household of John Spiers, a turner who already had his daughter, son-in-law and five children living with him in a tiny cottage in Pearl Terrace, Eastgate Street. We don’t know whether there was some family or social link with the Spiers family but we do know that neither Mary nor her co-residents were willing to look after baby Emily and around December 1871 she too was dumped with the Hawkins couple. Mary had a living to make and Emily was an embarrassing encumbrance in a world where a single mother was stigmatised as either feckless or worse. By the time of the trial in 1872 Mary had moved out of the Spiers’ house and was living in New Street close to Startin’s Court, though with whom is unknown.[12] Her proximity suggests she made little or no effort to check her daughter’s welfare in the hell-hole to which she had been consigned but once the case was exposed Mary did take Emily away. Where the couple then went is anybody’s guess. No record has been found of where they lived subsequently but it certainly wasn’t in Stafford. Mary presumably went off to make a new start elsewhere, perhaps under a new name. At least poor Emily seems to have survived – or at least there is no obvious record of her death in the 1870s.

These three children had a tragic start to their lives and two didn’t survive it. The Stafford case was but a small incident in the terrible history of baby farming in Victorian Britain with its cruelty, neglect and often wilful death. It was exposed most notoriously in the murder of babies – perhaps hundreds of them – by Amelia Dyer between the 1870s and 1896.[13] Even in a small town like Stafford there were many parents with unwanted or burdensome children. At the extreme they were willing or forced to offload their problems on to entrepreneurs like the Hawkins couple for modest payments and no questions asked. The awful consequences have been documented here. The grotesque result of entrusting such welfare provision to profit-seeking entrepreneurs in the private market continues to have echoes today in the abuses that periodically emerge in privatised front-line services.


Amelia Dyer, Victorian England’s most notorious baby farmer. She possibly murdered hundreds of babies given into her care.

[1] Staffordshire Advertiser (SA), 16 March 1872.

[2] SA, 23 March 1872.

[3] SA, 13 April 1872.

[4] SA 13 April 1872.

[5] Stafford Borough Council burial record 03/4240, Thomas Phillip Doran son of Thomas Phillip Dorna, shoemaker, Tenterbanks.

[6] There were a number of (probably interrelated) Doran families in Chester with sons named Thomas and more work would be needed to unambiguously assign the Stafford Thomas to the correct family.

[7] Chester Registration District, marriages, April-June 1871, 8a/537, Annie Simpson or Mary Barnes. Without acquiring the marriage certificate it is uncertain which of these two women Thomas Doran married but the circumstantial evidence points to Annie.

[8] Stafford RD, births, Thomas Phillip Doran, January-March 1872, 6b/4.

[9] Stafford RD, deaths, January-March 1871, 6b/3, Clara Litton, born 1835,

[10] Clara is listed as 3 years old in the return but this must be an enumerator’s error. Clara would have been about three months old at the time of the Census.

[11] Stafford RD, deaths, October-December 1873, 6b/1, Clara Litton aged 2 years.

[12] SA, 13 April 1872. At the Quarter Sessions Mary Adams was described as living in New Street.

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amelia_Dyer accessed 12 October 2016.