- Content warning: child abuse, murder. This is not a pleasant read, and is suitable only for those aged 18 or over.
The most famous of the baby farmer murderers in the early part of the 20th century in Wales, was Rhoda Willis. She was called the Splott baby farmer and was executed at Cardiff Prison. Studying her life in depth, there is no doubt she was suffering from deep psychological problems. Both of her marriages broke up in tragic circumstances; she turned to drink. The story of Rhoda, which is documented in one of the ‘Cruel Streets Revisited’ series books, is shocking, but the actions of Walter and Lydia Elms in 1917 take this horrible business to a new level of evil.
What their little tithe cottage in West Wales was used for beggar’s belief. An illegitimate baby, tied up, wrapped in cloth, then strapped to a stone and placed or thrown in the River Gwendraeth about two miles from Pembrey. When the child was finally recovered the postmortem showed it had died from starvation.
It was reported in court that another child, Ralph, was
a healthy child according to one or two witnesses, one of whom found that the female prisoner had tied its arms to its body and was in consequence evidently in pain. That child was also in a rapid state of hunger. It was kept in a tin box upstairs with the lid down with one or two holes in it, and with its nose flattened presenting an appearance so fearful that a child who happened to raise the lid of the box and saw it became so frightened that it ran downstairs and out of the house.
Ralph died. The complexities of this case would try the patience of modern-day detectives, but back in the 1912–17 period, it was an impossible task.
It was known that the Elmses advertised for babies in newspapers across the country, including Hereford, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire, Bristol and more. They were given between £10 and £15 a baby. They used various names, Collins, Holmes, Weston, Palmer and Elms. They travelled to various places for the newborns, for example, Bristol Temple Meads station platform to finalise their deals. They were supposed to then register the births, but there was disagreement over that. They did one, and registered the death, but that led to complications. Lydia said that she buried one dead baby in the sand dunes, then said it was drowned. This was the child found tied to a stone.
One child, Jones, was in the workhouse. Her body was littered with bruises, and she was so scared that you could scarcely bear being approached by others.
The prosecution alleged that the couple had six babies with them at Penybedd across both times they resided there.
Entrusted to the couple at Hereford, the sixth infant died in July 1914. The physician refused to certify the death, but the jury at a subsequent inquest found the causes to have been natural.
All in all though, the only charge that was brought against the couple, probably because it was the only one provable, was the murder of the little baby weighted down by a stone in the River Gwendraeth.
They were charged with murder and surprisingly failing to register births of children.
The jury, after hearing all the evidence available, refused to convict on the murder charge, which would have resulted in the death penalty, but convicted the husband and wife of manslaughter of the little one found in the River Gwendraeth.
They were both given five years’ penal servitude. The failing to register the birth was not proceeded with.