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Tell Your Own Story

The Ogress of Reading by Eithne Cullen

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Article by Eithne Cullen ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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In 2016 I spotted a call out for a project called Dangerous Women. At this time, I also heard Michael Gove announce that he was closing some prisons, Holloway included, and they would be converted to flats.  I came up with the idea of writing about the dangerous women who had been held in Holloway Prison. The piece became a monologue, spoken by the prison, called Slopping Out.

While I was writing this piece, I read about lots of the women who were executed in Holloway. There were a lot of amazing stories there. Among the stories of women who killed their husbands and lovers, I came across stories about a group of women who were described as baby murderers and baby killers; it seemed to be a well known crime in Victorian times. One of these baby killers was Amelia Dyer. She confessed to killing four hundred babies and was hanged for her crime.

I became really interested in this woman, who killed so many but was not a household name, like Jack the Ripper or Ruth Ellis (also hanged in Holloway).  So I started to look for more information about her. I found the story of a devious woman who used her skills as a nurse to help women with their confinements, she organised many adoptions and was part of the “baby farming” that went on in Victorian society. The term baby farming was not new to me, I’d come across it in literature before.

There were some characters who caught my attention like the poor young barmaid who answered an advert that told her a respectable couple were looking to adopt a child. She trusted her little girl, Doris, to the woman who came to meet her – not knowing it was Amelia Dyer.  Her baby was one that was identified as a victim of the baby killer and led to Dyer’s conviction. This woman, Evelina, and other characters who caught my attention were the ones I wanted to write about. I used them to develop some fictionalised parts of the story, which is a blend of fact and fiction. Some other characters were my own invention.

I came across a fragment of a popular ballad of the time called: The Ogress of Reading, which gave me a perfect name for the novel; I always saw her as a monster, anyway.

A link to a site about prison life told me that Dyer was in Reading Gaol at the same time as Oscar Wilde. I used information to write part of my story, bringing in the fact that there were two famous or infamous inmates in the prison at the same time.

So, the bits of information I was gathering about Amelia Dyer, along with the references I found about the ease of adopting a child, (for a charge of about ten pounds – about £900 or over 1000 Euros in today’s money) which was largely unregulated  and the stigma of illegitimacy which led to theses adoptions led me to write the book.

I was also shocked by how little value was placed on the life of a child – I found references to the bodies of babies being found in alleys and ditches in English cities. This was the time of Oliver Twist and foundlings being left on the steps of the workhouse. I was surprised to learn that orphanages would not take children born out of wedlock; they would taint the other children with their sin. My concern for the way women were treated grew, seeing the stigma of being unmarried and pregnant as a real contrast to today’s attitudes to women. The NSPCC was a newly formed organisation, in Amelia Dyer’s time, an emerging body, trying to deal with the misery of many infant lives.

So the book grew as a part fact -part fiction account of the way this evil woman went about her work. She used many skills to keep the babies quiet and hidden. She was, herself, put into mental institutions and the workhouse. She had many dependents: children of her own and children she had adopted, and a feckless son in law who was quite willing to share in her profits. I find it really hard to believe that she was not rich. She lived a squalid, little life: always changing her name, her identity, her address…always moving ahead of the law.

Pen to Print is a project run in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, supporting and encouraging writers (of novels, short stories, poetry and plays) through classes and mentoring. I was lucky to have my proposal for The Ogress shortlisted in their competition Real People Real Lives for books based on real people. They have supported me through the process, giving me a writing mentor and supported me in the self-publishing process with New Generation Publishing.

(c) Eithne Cullen

About The Ogress of Reading:

The body of a baby found in a river, a young woman’s sadness at giving up her child, one policeman’s efforts to bring a killer to justice…

Everyone has heard of Jack the Ripper who killed five women. Amelia Dyer, the Ogress of Reading, confessed to taking more than three hundred lives.  She was a baby farmer and murderer in a society where unmarried women were shamed by pregnancy and the lives of their babies were not valued.

The Ogress of Reading uses a mixture of fiction and fact to explore her crimes and the lives of those affected by them.

Order your copy online here.

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Eithne Cullen was born in Dublin; her family moved to London when she was six years old. She has taught in East London secondary schools for 37 years. An avid reader, Eithne takes great pleasure from her reading group which encourages an eclectic mix of books. She likes to write stories and poems and is a member of Forest Poets, Write Next Door and Barking Foxes. She lives with her husband in East London, is unashamedly proud of her three grown up children and endeavours to embarrass them as often as she can.