Baby-farming and ghosts at Stonelands
3 February 2023
The Stonelands area in between Brize Norton and Burford had a dark reputation in the 18th and 19th centuries as a location for 'baby-farming,'. Is Stonelands haunted by the ghost of a child-murderer?
What is 'baby-farming'?
The practice known as 'baby-farming' involved accepting money to take someone else's baby and raise it on their behalf. The baby-farmer would often promise that when old enough the child would be trained for domestic service, or take on an apprenticeship in a respectable trade. Some even spun wild tales that they had a list of wealthy families waiting to adopt the children left in their care.
However, the people in most need of the baby-farming 'service' tended to be poor unmarried mothers who could pay very little. As a result it was much more likely that the infant would be raised in squalor and exploited for cheap labour until they were old enough to be offloaded into a workhouse.
Due to the small sums of money exchanged for the children, it is unsurprising that the 'baby-farmers' would often be eager to get the infants off their hands as soon as possible, leading to rumours of infanticide. These rumours were sadly not unfounded. There were a number of high-profile cases during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in which women were executed for murdering the infants left in their care.
This is sadly similar to what is said to have happened at Stonelands in Oxfordshire.
Baby-farming at Stonelands
The 17th century farmhouse that once stood at Stonelands was known as 'Sworn Layes Great House' and was uniquely positioned to act as a more up-market baby farm. The website www.visitoruk.com explains that due to some sort of ecclesiastical oversight, the land at Stonelands did not belong to any of the surrounding parishes, and therefore activities could go on there that would have been considered unacceptable elsewhere.
It was known as a place offering 'lying-in', what today we would call midwifery and postnatal care. The fact that it advertised its services in national newspapers in the early 19th century indicates that it catered to a more wealthy selection of clients than some establishments. The daughters of respectable middle class families who had 'got themselves into trouble' would be sent to this out-of-the-way place to give birth and recuperate, and the infants themselves would be handed over to be raised by the owners of Sworn Layes Great House for a fee.
Despite the comparatively respectable and well-off nature of the clientele, rumours still circulated that some of the owners of the house were willing to take drastic measures in order to shirk their child-rearing duties.
One particularly notorious owner was believe to routinely smother the infants left in her care and bury their bodies buried in the garden. Katherine Briggs states in Folklore of the Cotswolds that 'At length her crimes caught up with her and she was hanged', but I haven't been able to find any newspaper reports to corroborate this.
It is the ghost of this woman who is believed to haunt the spot at Stonelands where the Sworn Layes Great House once stood. If you travel along the nearby road at night it is said you might catch a glimpse of a ghostly lantern moving about the old garden as the ghost of the child-murderer of Stonelands re-enacts the burial of her victims!
Links to another haunting at Burford?
Katherine Briggs points out that the above story bears some similarity to another told about the Old Vicarage at Burford, just 2 1/2 miles to the west. The wife of Rev. John Thorpe is said to have murdered some children and buried their bodies in the vicarage garden back in the 17th century. Could these two stories of child-murder and garden burial be connected?
- 'Folklore of the Cotswolds' by Katherine Briggs (Batsford Books, 1974, ISBN: 0713428317)
- Brize Norton (www.visitoruk.com)