Daniel Grey, “Liable to Very Gross Abuse’: Murder, Moral Panic and Cultural Fears over Infant Life Insurance, 1875-1914′

Dudley street, Seven Dials (1872)
Gustave Dore, Dudley street, Seven Dials from 'London, a Pilgrimage,' 1872.

By Daniel Grey

My article, “Liable to Very Gross Abuse’: Murder, Moral Panic and Cultural Fears over Infant Life Insurance, 1875–1914′, examines the late nineteenth century belief that working-class parents were liable to neglect and ultimately kill their children in hopes of receiving a life insurance payout from a friendly society. This idea was not only widely and repeatedly debated in the Victorian press and in Parliament, but the desire to eradicate this supposedly widespread practice became a cornerstone of policy for the newly-formed National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Remarkably few such instances of insurance-related child homicide ever found their way to the assize courts, however, and by the early twentieth century, the claim that such killings were a hidden epidemic in poor communities across Britain was being dismissed by commentators in the House of Lords as a pernicious urban legend.

Combining analysis of newspaper reports, periodical articles, and parliamentary papers with the judicial treatment of those few homicide cases where the subject of infant life insurance was raised during the court proceedings, my article charts the rise and fall of a failed attempt to provoke a moral panic which associated parental poverty with malice. The fact that a negligible number of infant murder and manslaughter prosecutions in this period alleged that the motive had been to collect an insurance payout seems to have had relatively little impact on the popularity of this trope. Critics such as Benjamin Waugh of the NSPCC repeatedly pointed to the difficulties of securing formal proof and convincing a jury that a child had been unlawfully killed where starvation and neglect, rather than direct violence, had been involved.[1]

Much more significant in the abandonment of this idea that working-class mothers and fathers were liable to kill their children on a whim and for paltry financial rewards was the shifting social, cultural and political landscape at the turn of the century. Although in the 1870s and 1880s it was still possible for middle-class critics to allege that the poor frequently did not (could not?) love and care for their children in the same way as their ‘betters’, this became an increasingly difficult idea to sustain by the turn of the century. Despite the ongoing popularity of ‘waif stories’ and the increasingly interventionist approach of the state and philanthropic bodies into cases that were perceived as ‘problem families’, the growing influence of working-class political movements and the shifting perceptions of childhood in this period required that failings formerly ascribed to ‘unnatural parents’ were now generally assumed to be the result of ignorance and so ultimately ‘fixable’. Although class prejudice (further mediated by constructions of gender and ethnicity) continued to inform both official and popular middle-class assessments of what constituted ‘proper’ behaviour and childcare in the twentieth century, that parental malice was no longer the default explanation for high rates of childhood mortality and morbidity had immense long-term significance for policymakers and working-class families alike.

[1] Benjamin Waugh, ‘Child-Life Insurance,’ Contemporary Review, 58 (July 1890), 40-63.

Daniel J.R. Grey is Junior Research Fellow in World History at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and is currently working on two book projects. The first of these, Degrees of Guilt: Infanticide in England 1860-1960 is forthcoming 2014 with Liverpool University Press, and the second, Feminist Campaigns Against Child Sexual Abuse: Britain and India, 1860-1947 will be published in 2015 with Continuum. Daniel can be found on Academia.edu here.

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