April 1907 – Teenager Lily Kitching sits in the family home on Ripon Street, Grimsby with her parents. A single mum, she’s nursing her week old baby boy who as yet still doesn’t have a name.
They open the newspaper and see an advert.
Lily’s mother reaches for a pencil and paper and starts to write…
A few days later a letter arrived at the Kitching’s House from a Mr J Baker. It said that he and his wife were glad to hear from them, and would be pleased indeed to have the baby, as it was only a few days old it would be easier to raise as their own. The letter insisted that the baby must be given up for life – and the Kitching’s must also pay them £15…
There were further details “my Wife” Mr Baker also stated “has undergone an operation about 2 years ago and is consequently deprived of god’s blessing.” It was also pointed out that they were well-to-do and comfortably off.
Convinced the Bakers were genuine Lily and her mother responded and a number of letters went back and forth – making arrangements.
A week later – a nicely dressed and well-spoken young woman arrived at the house in Great Grimsby, Mrs Baker.
She said she was going to Bristol, and when she got there she would have a photograph taken and sent, and she invited Lily, if she was ever in the area, to drop by and see the little one.
The new grandmother handed over the neatly wrapped baby – and £11 cash – and the visitor left Grimsby, with the child.
But two days later another letter arrived at the Kitching’s house – it was from the Bakers and they were demanding more money – £5 10 shillings more – £2 of it to cover the cost of the train. If they received swift payment the matter would be settled!
This rattled Mrs Kitching and immediately she went to the address that had been given in Liverpool to find out more, but was horrified to discover that it was just a ‘letter call office’.
Realising something was seriously wrong she headed to the police station and told them what had had happened.
But it was a tale that had a familiar whiff to the officers.
The information Mrs Kitching’s provided was vital and the police were able to follow it up.
The next day Sergeant Moore and his detectives visited a sweet shop in the city centre – on Scotland Road – they went inside – headed upstairs and found a young couple sitting down having tea. He told them why he was there.
The man naively told the detectives to come back in 10 minutes. Both were arrested on the spot. They were sent in a car to the station.
Moore searched the premises and found various items of clothing of a theatrical nature. Inside a number of the garments he found a series of keys of various shapes, sizes, and ingenious telescopic designs.
With the suspects sitting in the cell – and still no sign of the 2 week old baby boy the investigation into what had happened hastily expanded.
But what they would uncover, and the shocking scale of it, would make them shudder. The detectives were about to discover probably the biggest baby trafficking operation the country had ever seen.
The couple met in Shrewsbury. But how did they meet and what inspired them to become baby traffickers?
Herbert Smith, 21, and Lottie Roberts, 20, stood in the dock at the court room in Liverpool.
The charges…obtaining £11 pounds with intent to defraud, and causing the death of the 14 day old baby boy of Lily Kitching from Grimsby.
But their story started 18 months earlier.
Lottie Bourne, her real name, was working in a café in Shrewsbury. It was here she met Herbert Smith, a bar worker and former trainee pawnbroker – who was making a big name for himself in showbiz. Both were said to be natives of London.
On the circuit he was known as the “The Gentleman Handcuff Prince and Gaol Breaker”, stage name Leo Selwyn. He was Britain’s answer to Houdini and had gained a great reputation as a conjurer and an escapologist.
He performed up and down the land in Music Halls and boasted to have escaped from 51 prisons – much to the amazement of the prison officials who watched his stunts.
In fact when he was arrested he told the police the cell wouldn’t hold him and he’d be out in no time. He was so good he gave up all other honest work and became the Handcuff King full time.
A love affair seemingly blossomed and both traveled the country. Lottie became an actress and probably worked as his assistant – often using the stage name Jessie.
But she became pregnant. In October 1906 they took up lodgings in Swansea, 122 Western Street, under the name of Mr and Mrs Selwyn and stayed for 5 weeks – and Lottie gave birth to a baby girl…an inconvenient one.
They put adverts in the paper offering the baby out to nurse, hoping they could pay someone else to take-on their child. They put her in the hands of the Landlady Mrs Philips, paying her 4 shillings a week plus expenses in the meantime.
Life on the road beckoned and Herbert and Lottie left.
But to their surprise they were flooded with offers from desperate couples eager for a baby.
A Mrs Ball from Neath in South Wales was one of those who answered the advert and she took the child in.
But letters continued to arrive at Mrs Phillips house addressed to The Selwyns, The Smiths and the Bournes.
Fast Forward 7 months, the defendants are standing in the dock, and charges of fraud and causing the death of baby Kitching are put to them by Detected Sgt Moore – “I can say it’s not dead” said Herbert Smith, with Lottie adding that “the child is alive and well.”
To the other charges they said nothing. Bail was refused and they were remanded in prison.
The investigation however was in full flow. Detectives were unearthing an almost industrial scale of the trafficking of babies across the country – and the deeper they dug the more cases they found…all carried out in an almost identical manner, and in an astonishingly short amount of time.
And as the evidence built up it became clear that the people behind it were now sitting in a cell in Liverpool – a conjurer and his assistant.
So just how big was their scandalous operation? – And how many babies did the conjurer and the waitress traffic?
“LADY without encumbrance would like healthy BABY; entire surrender requested; good comfortable home, premium £15 . – Write, Baker, 60 Islington, Liverpool.”
It was just one of a series of different adverts that had been appearing in papers across the country for the past 6 months, placed there by Lottie and Herbert. They used different names and addresses:
Mr and Mrs Isdale, Baker, Smith, Hughes.
When somebody replied – usually a single desperate young women who’d found herself in trouble – the conjuring duo would respond, posing as a married couple unable to have children…more than happy to take the child but for a fee.
Seeing that they had no option the new mothers would hand over their babies and the money.
In February 1907 a young single Devonshire woman gave birth to a baby boy. She responded to one of the adverts.
Lottie using a false name met up with the young mum at Exeter Train Station, convinced her with her usual sob story and the little babe was handed over along with £13 cash. The mum went home.
But Lottie got on a train and headed for Bath. Here they put an advert in the paper. WANTED – Would Kind Lady adopt my baby in perfect health, entire surrender to good home, without premium, or give a few pounds about April. -Write Selwyn, 122 Weston Street, Swansea.
A woman called Mrs Burrell from West Twerton in Bath responded. But she didn’t hear back, until the following Monday, February the 11th, when a pretty young well-dressed woman turned up at her house carrying a baby. The woman promised a weekly payment for maintenance and Mrs Burrell took the child.
But the cash didn’t appear. When it dawned on her that she’d been ‘imposed upon’ she took the baby to the workhouse in Bath.
It’s a story that seemed all too familiar now to the officials there. The assistant clerk, a Mr Glover, who’d seen many similar cases over the past few months, was on the track of the culprits who were now residing in Liverpool on Scotland Road. He gathered all the information he had and passed it to the police there when he heard about the arrests.
Their investigation was going well. It turns out the Lottie and Herbert had been active across the country.
Having found it easy to dispose of the children, by the time they moved to a furnished apartment in Bristol, funded by their exploits, they’d taken babies from mothers in Leeds, Lincoln, Charlton Kings, Cheltenham, Wetheridge in Devon, Chester Dewsbury, Chesterfield, Wickham, Worcester, Bath and Wendesfield Staffordshire, Altrincham, Grimsby, Ollerton. They were distributed in many more places, including London, Mold, Neath, Halifax, Sheffield. They left Bristol and continued their work in Belfast before finally heading to Liverpool.
In total the authorities were aware of 20 children they’d trafficked but they believed that in reality the true number was probably much higher…but many mothers were unwilling to tell their story let alone stand up in court and tell the world how they’d given up their children. In Belfast the police found this an even harder nut to crack.
A date for the trial was set and the country waited for what would surely be an open and shut case. But the hunt for baby Kitching from Grimsby was still underway.
So what would happen at the trial when Lottie and Herbert come face to face the child that inspired their awful crimes?
July 1907: In a stuffy Liverpool court room, the public gallery packed, and the press in full attendance, Sgt Moore appealed for the identities of the mothers and children to be kept secret from the public in order to protect them.
The prosecutor then outlined the case against the young couple – the conjurer and his assistant, Herbert Smith and Lottie Roberts.
Both were charged with 5 counts of obtaining money ranging from £10- £15 on false pretences – but he said he also had information of cases involving 19 other children.
The first female witness was called. A well-to-do young married women took the stand, but with her was a sweet little baby girl, about 6 months old who was beautifully attired.
Lottie broke down and starting sobbing. The witness described how her and her husband had taken on the child but maintenance payments from the defendants soon stopped. But they’d grown so fond of the little girl they decided to adopt her.
This child, now produced in court was Lottie’s little baby that she’d given up in the months before Christmas.
More witnesses were called to the stand. And the judge asked the prosecuting lawyer if he was going to bring any more children to the assizes? If so “you’ll have a crèche”, he joked as laughter rippled through courtroom.
One after the other a series of single young women took the stand and described how they’d seen adverts in the paper from a married couple keen to foster a child, the women had responded, met up with the defendants and handed over their children and money. Lincolnshire Echo – Monday 25 March 1907
Other witnesses gave evidence that they’d seen adverts from a woman looking to put a child out to nurse for modest maintenance payments. But when they’d taken on the child the promise of weekly cash, often just shillings, dried up. And when they tried to contact the parents it was clear they’d been given false names and addresses.
It didn’t take long before the full scale of the defendants’ activities, and their motive, became clear.
After their own child was born they realised there was big money to be made by offering a home to the babies of desperate single young women – these girls would pay Lottie and Herbert a lump sum to take the children.
Some days later they’d often then write to the parents demanding more money.
In the meantime the conjurer and his assistant would palm off the babies at a fraction of the cost to other foster parents – leaving a false name and address so they couldn’t be traced when the cash never materialised.
These children were then often put in workhouses or just cruelly abandoned on the streets.
From train station to train station, house to house, advert to advert, Lottie and Herbert trafficked children across the country at an astonishing rate; as soon as they saw an ad for a child they were already planning how to offload it.
Two more witnesses who took the stand were Mr and Mrs Kitching from Grimsby , the grandparents of the baby boy that the police had been desperately searching for, for weeks.
So what had happened to the Grimsby baby whose case lifted the lid on Lottie and Herbert’s baby trafficking operation? And what could the conjurer and the waitress possibly say in their defense?
Baby Kitching had been missing for weeks…presumed dead.
Taken from his teenage single mother, in Grimsby, on the promise of a loving home, devoted parents and a bright future…and the Kitchings had paid £11 pounds to secure it.
But Lily had been duped by a conjurer and his assistant; Herbert Smith – stage name Leo Selwyn The Handcuff King, and Lottie Roberts – actress and former waitress.
However, it was the Grimsby case that blew the lid on their entire operation.
When more money was demanded from the Kitchings the grandmother went to the police in Liverpool after discovering they’d been given a false address.
The baby boy was nowhere to be found, he was possibly dead or in a workhouse…but after extensive inquiries the police managed to trace him.
He’d been fostered by a Mrs Flatters in Lincoln on the promise of 5 shillings a week – which never arrived. She described how she’d met Lottie at the train station and taken the child who was very cold and suffering from ill-attention. The boy was still alive – his name was Harry!
Lincoln St. Marks railway station 1992. Now dissused.
When Herbert stood in the dock he admitted everything – and told the court that Lottie was innocent and had only been doing what he told her to do.
Cheltenham Chronicle – Saturday 20 July 1907
In his defense he said the situation wasn’t so black and white. He described how he’d befriended a woman in Bristol who’d told him there was nothing for her and her child but the river or the workhouse. Her story was an age old one told in just nine words –
“a faithless lover, a baby born, a lost situation”.
He and Lottie had found the child a foster parent – and it was doing well.In summing up the judge gave Smith credit for helping TWO women in this way. But said the prisoners had however carried out a systematic fraud with very mischievous results.
It’s thought they’d made at least £166 but probably more – that’s 9 and half thousand in today’s money
Herbert Smith was sentenced to 15 months in prison and Lottie Roberts 8 months – both with hard labour.
But as for the fate of the children – most of them remain untraceable…