The murderess of Harley Street

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Foundling Hospital: mementos left with babies include this gold brooch, with a lock of the owner’s (greying) hair

What happened when an upper servant got pregnant? Of all the babies accepted by London’s Foundling Hospital between 1821 and 1830, two thirds came from servants. Of these, a disproportionate third were in the higher ranks of service (housekeepers, cooks, governesses, nurses, ladies’ maids): women who were older, with better social backgrounds and greater literacy skills than your average maid.

How did these respectable career servants become pregnant? Not through promiscuity – there was scant opportunity. Rape or coercion was common, aristocratic men seeing maid servants as fair game. But more often it was through misfortune: when a long-standing courtship failed to end in marriage as expected. These women did not want to abandon their new-borns but they had no choice. Small, poignant mementos – bracelets, buttons, necklaces – were left with their babies at the Foundling Hospital. You can see them if you visit today, as well as the bundles of letters sent by women hungry for information on the babies they would never see again. It’s tear-inducing stuff.

Their children would, at least, have some kind of a future. Another way out was infanticide.

Unsexed: upper servants were not permitted to fall in love, or crave children

Unsexed: upper servants were not expected to fall in love, or crave children of their own

In 1849 the nation was gripped by a case of unusual horror in which a London cook-housekeeper was accused of a double infanticide: twice over seven years she throttled her child (one new-born, one two years old), boxed up the body and sent it to relatives in the country. ‘The Child Murder in Harley-Street’, as reported, painted 36-year-old Sarah Drake as ‘inhuman’, ‘barbarous’ and ‘unnatural’. Celebrated Scotland Yard detective Sergeant Whicher investigated, and the trial was ‘thronged with eager lovers of the horrible and mysterious’, including many ‘well dressed females’.

Detective Inspector Jack Whicher

Detective Sergeant Jack Whicher on the case

Sarah Drake worked for the gentry as a cook-housekeeper, the most senior servant’s role in the house. She was not quite in the marriage market, by dint of her age and her seniority (‘about 40 years of age with a somewhat ugly expression of features… respectably dressed’ as the reporters put it), but while working at a country house in Oxfordshire she formed an attachment to the butler, a Frenchman from Boulogne, and became pregnant.

She left her job, gave birth and when the baby was six weeks old put him ‘at nurse’ with a Mrs Jane Johnson, a policeman’s wife in Peckham, for six shillings a week. Drake found more work with a Lady Anne Gore Langton, then changed jobs again to a Mr Huth Esq in Upper Harley Street: she was scrabbling around to pay for her child’s expenses and constantly falling in arrears.

Letters not read in court (but reproduced by the Bucks Herald) reveal an increasingly frantic woman who desperately misses her child Lewis (named after the butler, Louis) but can’t afford the carriage fare to see him. ‘Please to kiss my dear ­– for me,’ she writes to Mrs Johnson. ‘A shilling to me now is a great deal… If I could have walked to you I should have been happy to have done so… You know the difficulties I am placed in… My greatest anxiety is to get out of your debt.’

Sarah Drake's piteous letters were produced at the Old Bailey trial

Sarah Drake’s piteous letters were produced at the Old Bailey trial: ‘Please to kiss my dear for me… You know the difficulties I am placed in.’

Drake is in contact with the child’s father, but neither of them can come up with a solution for his future. Both need to continue in service simply to survive. Sarah doesn’t dare tell her own family of his existence. ‘I am afraid his father will be determined of him going to France, to his mother; a proposal I strongly oppose,’ she wrote to Mrs Johnson, her only safe confidante. ‘I shall take my dear B. [baby] to France, I only know of this late on Saturday… and with a trembling hand I write this to you. In trouble. God bless you.’

She sets off for Dover but the baby is too sick to travel – a doctor pronounces he has ‘water on the brain’ – so back he goes and the debts mount up. Sarah Drake is in a corner with nowhere to turn. She cannot go home; she cannot find work with a baby. She writes finally to Mrs Johnson asking her to ‘take the baby to the parish’ – the dreaded workhouse – as she has to travel with her employers to Spain (a fabrication, it transpires). ‘My heart is broken at writing this but I know not what else to do.’

The workhouse: where children were segregated from their parents, and put to work

The workhouse: where children were segregated from their parents, and put to work

Mrs Johnson’s husband, running out of patience for the money owing and suspecting ‘a mere ruse’, despatches his wife with the child to track her down. At 10 o’clock on 28 November Jane Johnson triumphantly carries Lewis into the housekeeper’s sitting room.

Sarah Drake by now owes £9.10s (£470 in today’s money), a tough sum to repay on her earnings of £15 a year (£875). Now, with the child in her room, in her place of work, she is about to lose her new job and any chance to work again. ‘Don’t say it’s my child,’ begs Drake, hustling Mrs Johnson and Lewis into the butler’s pantry while the lady of the house descends to discuss the day’s menus. Today she is respectable; tomorrow she will be on the streets with a two-year-old boy. They face destitution.

Lewis leaves the house in Harley Street in a box. The unwitting butler writes the address on it, and the footman takes it to the station at Euston Square, bound for North Leverton, Nottinghamshire. It is not hard to trace the sender (the child is wrapped in Drake’s name-tagged apron), nor for Detective Sergeant Whicher to link this to her previous crime – another baby in a box, for which she has already spent six months in prison. There is the suspicion that a third baby in a box, stillborn, was sent to relatives by Drake’s hand in 1841. But there is insufficient evidence to pin this on her.

Destitute: a servant with a baby would be cast out onto the streets

Destitute: one day you might be a respectable servant; the next, cast out onto the streets

‘Are you married?’ Sarah Drake asks the woman gaoler who searches her the night before her trial. ‘Then you can feel for me, and I’ll tell you. It’s all about a child. I was afraid of losing my place – I hung the child – I did it in a moment – I packed it up and sent it to my sister.’

To public outrage Drake was acquitted of murder on the grounds of insanity. She did not hang. Instead she was sent – a ‘criminal lunatic’ – to Bedlam. ‘She did not shed any tears,’ reported the Bucks Herald. ‘But notwithstanding that, she was evidently suffering most acutely.’