‘Liable to Very Gross Abuse’: Murder, Moral Panic and Cultural Fears over Infant Life Insurance, 1875–1914

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The belief that infant life insurance policies provided working-class parents with a direct incentive for the deliberate starvation and neglect of their children was widespread in late nineteenth-century Britain. Newspapers, medical periodicals and the newly formed National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) regularly claimed that, though almost impossible to prove, cases of lethal child abuse were endemic across the United Kingdom. These anxieties appear to have reached their zenith in the 1880s and 1890s, yet despite the regular (albeit not unchallenged) repetition of this claim in the press and before Parliament, actual cases of child homicide where it was alleged that infant life insurance had been the motivation for the crime seem to have been few and far between. Nor did critics of the practice ever succeed in banning it outright. By 1908 politicians felt able to assert that this idea was utterly without foundation, and the once persistently repeated rhetoric of malevolent working-class parents seems to have disappeared altogether by the First World War. Tracing the debates over this subject in the press and Parliament alongside the small number of child homicide trials which invoked life insurance as a factor, this article charts the shift in these ideas from a widely supported public concern to its final refutation as a fear which ‘has not been found in practice'.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-71
JournalJournal of Victorian Culture
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jan 2013


  • Class
  • parenting
  • life insurance
  • Infant mortality
  • nineteenth century
  • moral panic
  • newspapers
  • Parliamentary reform


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