Walkley History

News, events and discoveries of the Walkley Ways, Walkley Wars history project.

Baby-farming at Walkley

1887-11-07 baby farming elton street SDI

Sheffield Independent 7 November 1887

“On Wednesday last, a man and his wife,
who gave the address of Elton street, Walkley,
visited Eckington in search of the parents of
an infant child who had died whilst in their

The couple and their address are not revealed in this article but other evidence
shows that they were Thomas and Mary Elizabeth Slack of 41 Elton Street.


Elton Street 1950s map


(Visitors to the Walkley Ways marquee in Ruskin Park last Saturday will have
been standing close to the site of this house).

A month ago in answer to an advertisement
for a baby to nurse at Elton street, a man carrying
a child a few weeks old presented himself at the
address named, saying he wished to put the child
with them.

An example of these advertisements (from the following year, 1888)…

1888-07-24 baby farming advert

A young woman having had a misfortune by him,
he had taken to the child and was willing to pay 5s.
per week, a month in advance. He wished the matter
keeping very quiet, as he was a married man. The
terms were agreed upon…he told them that the child’s
name was James Cordwell. 

The birth index calls him James Turner Caudwell.
The death index says James Turner Coldwell.

The child became ill, and died last Tuesday, hence the
search for the parents to pay funeral expenses, but no
tidings could be found.

The article goes on to say that Mrs Slack had visited both Eckington andWorksop
but the registrars in both places had failed to find the child’s name in their records
– perhaps because of the uncertainty about the spelling of his name.

The article concludes:

She also said they had been similarly duped on a former
occasion, having had to sell the pig to pay an infant’s
funeral expenses.

‘Baby farming’ was a popular and pejorative term for the boarding of infants for payment. ‘Baby Farmers’ were regarded with deep suspicion. There were high profile cases where they were prosecuted for wilful neglect or murder of children left in their charge. Sometimes payment was in the form of a single lump sum or ‘premium’ and it was a common belief that this encouraged the hastening of the deaths of these babies when no further income was expected.

The prevalence of such callous treatment was wildly exaggerated in the public and particularly the middle-class imagination. At a time when formal adoption didn’t exist these women and families were providing a service, dealing with the victims of a society where illegitimacy was a stigma which might be hidden by removing the children themselves from sight.

In the above case the couple from Elton Street are not hiding their activities – they have clearly provided information to the newspaper and applied to official bodies for help. The newspaper is also willing to carry their advertisements.


The Slacks and two of their young charges can be seen in the 1901 census:


1901 census
41 Elton St
Thomas SLACK Head Marr 67 general labourer
Mary E SLACK Wife Marr 61
Charles F Son Wid 34 navvy
William HUNT Boarder 1
Olive ROWLAND Boarder 4m
There are other references to Mrs Slack in the newspapers. In 1892 an inquest into the death of an infant who had passed through the hands of several ‘baby farmers,’ beginning with Mrs Slack of Eltob Street, described her care as satisfactory. In 1899 she was asking the Ecclesall Guardians for help in tracing a man in a similar case to the Eckington one, though this was for non-payment rather than the death of the child.

Mary Slack and her husband Thomas were buried in Burngreave Cemetery on the same day in September 1905. In the same grave are two infants who had died in the previous two years. They have different surnames but died at 41 Elton Street. This shows that the Slacks were still taking in very young babies when they were in their 60s.


I don’t know who paid the funeral expenses, but this child was buried in Walkley Cemetery on the day that the article appeared in the Independent:

Burial Register Grave C298
COLDWELL  Albert Turner    buried:   7 Nov 1887    41 Elton St    aged 1 month   (minister Thomas Smith)

More about Baby Farming in this Victorian History blog:


This includes quotes from Oliver Twist, including:

…it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten,
either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire
from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one
of which cases, the miserable little being was usually
summoned into another world, and there gathered to the
fathers it had never known in this.

Also a tract from 1890:





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This entry was posted on June 27, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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