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Modernity and ‘Baby-Farming’: The Privatised Commerce of Motherhood and Respectability in Victorian and Edwardian London

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posted on 16.04.2019, 09:56 by Joshua G. Stuart-Bennett
The term ‘baby-farming’, first conceptualised during the late Victorian period, described informal arrangements of paid ‘out-of-house’ substitute mothering - either temporary nursing and fosterage or permanent adoption - that were believed to commonly result in the intentional neglect or murder of children. Since this period to the present, understandings of ‘baby-farming’ have persistently been developed through partial and reductionist narratives of ‘women who kill’, constructed almost entirely upon a handful of the most ‘newsworthy’ cases. By extension, late Victorian and Edwardian systems of ‘out-of-house’ substitute mothering - that dominant narratives have labelled ‘baby-farming’ - have been routinely misrepresented as wholly deviant and criminal. This thesis reconceptualises these dominant constructions, and instead locates the practices associated with ‘baby-farming’ within a modern marketplace of motherhood where women could privately negotiate the stigmas and hardships of problematic parenthood and manage their respectable identities. This thesis provides a narrative social-history ‘from below’ that gives voice and agency to those directly involved in the practices of ‘out-of-house’ substitute mothering and who have so far remained largely ‘hidden’ in history. Unlike any other account, this thesis takes the personal advertisements of ‘out-of-house’ substitute mothering that brought the key parties to these transactions together as pivotal to making sense of this phenomenon in its entirety as a normative process. A sample of 838 of these adverts is used in conjunction with other archival data to reveal and explore how the Victorian and Edwardian obsession with respectable womanhood was key to the ways this marketplace manifested. The practices, individuals, and all outcomes associated with ‘baby-farming’ are revealed as natural and rational products of the same ideologies and technologies of modernising society that made it ‘civilised’. Those labelled ‘baby-farmers’ ultimately provided an essential service, a form of ‘dirty work’, that was central to the maintenance of ‘respectable’ society.



Sanders, Teela; Hodgkinson, Sarah; Jones, Hillary; Barnes, Rebecca; Connor, Mark

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Department of Criminology

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University of Leicester

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