Saturday 1 March 2014

Baby Farmers - Greenacre Guest Blog

Guest Blog from Caitlin Davies

It’s a warm Sunday morning and I’m standing a little uncertainly on a street of handsome Edwardian houses in East Finchley. The sun seeps out between the clouds, delicate pink blossom falls from roadside trees; it’s a scene of quiet suburban respectability. Yet 100 years ago one of these houses was a lying in home for unmarried pregnant women, and the centre of an infamous murder case that captivated and repulsed the nation.

I’ve come here to meet 32-year-old Penninah Asher; a year ago we’d never heard of each other, now we’re united by a strange case of family history and a century old crime.

Like millions of others in the UK, Penninah is fascinated by genealogy and ten years ago she decided to study her paternal line, “I come from a fractured family on my father’s side; I’m estranged from my dad, I haven’t seen him since I was 16, and I’d never met my grandparents; I didn’t even know their first names. I knew nothing about the family at all.”

Nearly a third of Britons have researched their ancestors online, and in the process one in six have found an illegitimate child or a secret adoption. But Penninah was to find out something far more shocking.

One day she got an email from a man who’d seen her family tree. He asked if she was aware that she was related to a woman convicted for mass murder, “And I thought, oh my god, I went straight back to the tree and I went over and over and checked and double-checked, and he was right.”

Several years after Penninah’s discovery, I came across her forebear as well. In 2007 I moved into a new home in Holloway, a small terraced house built in the 1890s. I became interested in the history of the area, trawling the archives at a local history centre, immersing myself in workhouse records and spending hours Googling leads on the Internet.

Then one day I stumbled across an Edwardian crime that had happened nearby; the case of two notorious baby farmers, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the first women to be hanged at Holloway Prison, in 1903.

My first thought was, what was a baby farmer? And so began a year of research which I then turned into a novel, The Ghost of Lily Painter.

Amelia Sach

By the time the novel was finished, Penninah had got in touch to tell me her great grandmother was none other than Amelia Sach’s sister. It was then that we decided to meet up in East Finchley to try and find her forebear’s lying in home.

Sach and Walters in the dock

If you’re interested in hearing more about the Finchley baby farmers – what exactly was their crime and were they guilty? – come to The Finchley Literary Festival on May 31st at Stephens House and Gardens (formely Avenue House) where I’ll be explaining how I researched the Ghost of Lily Painter and whether we managed to locate the lying in home.

The Ghost of Lily Painter is published by Windmill, as is Caitlin’s latest novel Family Likeness. She is also the author of several non-fiction books, including Taking the Waters: a swim around Hampstead Heath and Camden Lock and the Market, both published by Frances Lincoln.

To find out more about Caitlin’s work visit or follow her on twitter @CaitlinDavies2

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