On 30 March 1896, a bargeman was navigating his cargo down the River Thames at Reading, just past Caversham Lock. As he passed the wooden footbridge known as the Clappers, he spotted a parcel drifting in the water. He unhooked it to get a closer look, unprepared for the shocking contents that lay inside. He pulled back the thick layer of sodden flannel to reveal a tiny human foot. In the parcel was the body of a baby girl; she had been strangled with white tape that had been tied twice around her neck and knotted under her left ear. The police would soon find that her horrific injuries would form a sinister pattern.

Faint writing on the parcel led the police to Amelia Dyer, who was living in Reading, under the alias of Mrs Thomas. She was arrested on 3 April on suspicion of murder. Further searches of the River Thames at Caversham, yielded six more infant corpses as the police began to piece together a picture of the heinous trade in infants that Mrs Dyer had practised for almost three decades. In Manchester, the day after Dyer’s arrest, another gruesome crime came to light which was very similar to the heinous acts of Amelia Dyer.

A young lad was playing football with his brother on the banks of the canal, just outside the city centre. When he went over to the canal to wash his boots, he spotted the legs of a child sticking up out of the water. Pulling out the tiny body, he found that it was a female infant, fully dressed, with a cord tied tightly around her neck, just like the victims of Amelia Dyer, which would have hit the headlines that very same weekend.

As the shocking details of the Dyer case in Reading unfolded in the press, people initially believed that she had travelled up to the northwest to dispose of more young victims. However, the identity of this particular child remained a mystery until the case was placed in the capable hands of Detective Chief Inspector Jerome Caminada, who wasted no time in tracking down the killer.

Identified by a lodging-house keeper, the parents of the child were Joseph Hirst and Martha Goddard. Hirst was a violent man, who abused his common-law wife.  One day the landlady had heard a scream from the couple’s room. They left the house, returning later without the child. With the aid of a colleague disguised as a vagrant, Caminada traced Hirst to Leicester, where he arrested him. Both parents were tried for the wilful murder of their daughter, Maud. Martha was acquitted, but Hirst was found guilty and later executed. It was the only time in Detective Caminada’s long career that an investigation ended on the scaffold.

Amelia Dyer was arrested very close to where I live and it was the very first Victorian crime story to kindle my interest. I will be sharing more crimes from Detective Caminada’s casebook at Caversham Library on Tuesday 12 August at 7.30 pm – all welcome!

Caversham library