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Sinister r tale of baby farmer rs unearthed.

Byline: HannahStephenson

WE'RE all aware of infamous houses that hold dark secrets: 10 Rillington Place, the home of serial murderer John Christie; 23 Cranley Gardens, where Denis Nilsen lured his victims; and the garden at 25 Cromwell Street, in Gloucester, where Fred and Rosemary West buried some of theirs.

When author Caitlin Davies moved to an Edwardian house in north London three years ago, she too discovered a sinister trail involving two erstwhile neighbours who were in the business of baby farming.

"I'd never even heard the term 'baby farmers', but I wondered who used to live here before," Davies explains. "Then one day I looked up Holloway Prison, a local landmark, and they had a list of women who'd been hanged there. It said Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, the baby farmers."

The term describes late-Victorian women who adopted the babies of young, vulnerable unmarried mothers for a fee. As it was more profitable for the baby farmer if the adopted infant or child died - since the small payment could not cover the care of the child for long - some baby farmers adopted numerous children and then neglected or murdered them.

Davies, the daughter of acclaimed writers Margaret Forster and Hunter Davies, went on a mission to find out all she could.

"To begin, with I was hoping that maybe they were innocent, but as time went on I realised they weren't."

They became the subject of her latest book, The Ghost Of Lily Painter, which centres around these two notorious baby farmers and their case, but creates a fictional universe around them.

Today, Davies, 47, tries to put things into perspective, stressing that there were only a handful of criminal baby farmers in the early 1900s - the vast majority were simply trying to earn a living taking in a child.

It's a very different book from Davies's previous works, which have largely focused on Botswana, where she lived for 12 years until she split from her husband, Ron, and returned to the UK with her daughter, Ruby, now 11.

She may make her living writing about dark events - but she also experienced them. Her return to the UK followed what must have been the most traumatic event of her life, when in 2001 Davies was raped by a stranger waiting on her doorstep as she returned home with her daughter in broad daylight.

He locked her in her own house, then stabbed and raped her as she held Ruby in her arms. He was caught a few minutes later by her husband, charged and given a 12-year sentence.

The offender, who had previous convictions including rape, had only just come out of prison.

In her 2005 memoir, Place Of Reeds, Davies wrote candidly about the rape and her extended family's unsympathetic and dismissive attitude towards it. The attack, she agrees, contributed to the break-up of her marriage, although it wasn't the catalyst.

"It didn't make me come back to England, but when something like that happens, you realise that's perhaps the last straw, that was the breaking point."

The attack has changed the way she lives her life, she reflects.

"You can't possibly go through something like that and not be changed. You don't feel safe. It gets better over the years, but it's very difficult to trust your own judgment."

Davies's parents have remained a constant support and they're extremely close, she says. She lives with her new partner, who's a press photographer, and work has also been her salvation.

She's already well into her next novel.

"I'm really lucky to be doing something I love. I'm always planning how to get back to work."

* THE Ghost Of Lily Painter, by Caitlin Davies, is published by Hutchinson, priced pounds 12.99.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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