IN 1883 a very strange thing was brought to my
knowledge at the Day Nursery. It happened in this way :—
One day, about the end of May, a man called to apply
for the admission to the Day Nursery of his motherless child, aged about
four years. He said he was a German, and could speak very little English.
He gave the name of N—, and said he was a chemist’s labourer. The nurse
supplied him with the usual certificate. He seemed unwilling to go away,
and after a time made her understand he now
wished a certificate for the Home, the
existence of which he had discovered since he entered the house. She told
him she must ask me for that, which she accordingly did at my next visit.
It seemed to me a most necessary case, being, as I was led to believe,
that of a little motherless foreigner, who had no other means of being
taken care of. In a few days the child was brought, but instead of being
four years old, looked about six or seven. She remained in the Home
all summer. N— visited her frequently, and
seemed very anxious about her; in fact, was inclined to be intrusive, and
to disregard the hours at which visitors were expected. However, we made
all due allowance for his ignorance of our ways, and things went on
smoothly enough. All this time I had never met him, though I had several
times sent him a message that I should like to talk to him. In August I
was away from home, and received a letter from him, not very coherent,
written partly in German, partly in broken English. So far as I could
understand it, the point was to beg me to admit another German
child into the Home, whom he expected shortly to arrive from Germany. I
felt provoked at his presuming to bring children from Germany for no
apparent reason but to take advantage of the Home. However, as I could not
decipher the letter to my own satisfaction, and was to be absent for some
weeks, I thought it safer to ask our doctor to go and see him, to find out
the truth of the matter, and, if
necessary, receive the other
child. After some correspondence Dr. Notley wrote to me that he could not
understand the man; he had changed his address once or twice; that
sometimes he said one thing, sometimes another; that the second child had
dropped out of the question, and was not coming to Scotland in the
meantime; that I had better make a point of seeing him (the applicant) as
soon as possible, adding, he could speak English as well as any one.
On my return to Edinburgh I arranged
for N— to come and see me at the Home. He at once began the conversation
by asking me to receive another little girl.
I said, "Is this the one you
expected in August?" He replied, "No; that child stopped in London, where
she has been put into a Home for German orphans; this, madam, is another,
a third little girl."
Startled out of all caution, I
remarked, "How very extraordinary! What do you mean by it? What are you
doing with all these children?"
He said, "Oh, madam, it is quite
natural; the first is my own child; the second—well, her friends’ plans
for her are changed; the third, it is still well. I want a companion for
my own child, and I prefer a German to a Scotch girl."
I felt it was not all well. The man
looked odd. I suspected something wrong, but could not tell what. I
thought the best thing was to be quiet and let him go on telling me
anything he chose; so I made a good listener, and, except by a question
now and then, did not interrupt him in a long and circumstantial account
of his wife’s illness and death, when his little girl was born in a poor
neighbourhood close by where we were then sitting. The truth of this I
never doubted, and expressed my sympathy.
At last it occurred to me to say,
"Who helped you to take care of your little girl after her mother’s death
He said, "She was with my friends in
I asked, "Why didn’t you leave her
there? or why don’t you send her to them again? "
His English failed, he no longer
understood, until at length he informed me his object in getting the third
one was to have her as his housekeeper very soon, and by-and-by to make
his wife. I felt the only safety for the poor child was to receive her
into the Home as quickly as possible.
Accordingly I gave him the
certificate required, which he got filled up, and in a few days there
arrived from the German boat, a fair, pretty little child of nine years
old, who could not speak a word of English, and seemed dreadfully afraid
of N—. She was in the Home about a fortnight, when he claimed the
privilege of taking her out, as our children were allowed to go to their
friends once a week, and arrived at Burntisland with her (where I was
staying for a short time). He insisted on my allowing him to send her back
to Germany. This I positively refused to do; and having warned him that I
should inquire thoroughly into the circumstances, I allowed him to take
the child away with him, having promised to take her straight to the Home.
No sooner had I done so than I felt miserable, and after a sleepless night
got up in time for the early boat from Burntisland to Granton at 8 a.m.;
drove quickly to the Home at Stockbridge, only to hear, as might be
expected, there had been no tidings of them. From thence I proceeded to a
German pastor in the neighbourhood. From him I learned it was a dreadful
business altogether. That this man had had a succession of little girls,
each personating his motherless child; that they had come and gone no one
knew whither; that unless these children, now in his hands, were to have
an awful fate, I must get and keep hold of them by any means, even if I
had to get the police to help me. To this I not unnaturally responded,
"Then will you come and help me?"
"No, he could not do that; he was
afraid." I could not understand it, and wasted a few moments in
coaxing and arguing with him. Finally, he advised me to go to the German
Consul, who was bound to interfere. This I did, was courteously
received, but obtained no sympathy nor any promise of help. Mr. R— was
strongly of opinion I should leave the whole thing alone.
Finding I was obstinate, he decided
to tell me all he knew, and taking out a bundle of papers, translated for
my benefit what sounded to me like a revelation of the greatest wickedness
I had ever heard of. I need not say I left the office more determined than
ever to rescue the child.
On returning to the Home, and
finding the Nurse too frightened to be capable of helping me very much, I
despatched one of the working girls to the "land," or block of houses
where N— lived, and told her to ask the women on the stair if they could
help me, charging the girl to bring the child to me at once. E— was an
active, well-grown girl of about seventeen, and set off, nothing loath.
When she got to the stair where the wretched abode was, she heard a child
crying piteously, and at the top of the stair the sound seemed to come
from an empty attic where the poor little thing had been locked in. But
there was a broken window opening on the landing; and having satisfied
herself that it was A—’s voice, she, E —, persuaded her to climb up on the
inside of the wall, while she could help her through the aperture, and by
a good jump get free. So that in a very few minutes the little prisoner
found her way back to me, having apparently cried till she could cry no
more. I thereupon decided to take her to Merelton, Wardie (my own house),
believing she would be perfectly safe, and no one dare to molest us there.
In this I reckoned without my host. The events of the forenoon I
have described took place on Friday; and the Sunday following being the
Communion Sabbath, all the grown-up people in my house wished to go to
Church. To allow them to do so, a big girl was brought from one of the
country Homes to cook the dinner and look after the little children, of
whom there were three or four besides the German child.
I having a very bad headache, could
not go to Church, and stayed in bed. After the rest of the party had
children came to say their hymns to me for Sunday for a little, and
then I believe I
fell asleep. I was awakened by a knock at the door. "Please, ma’am, a
gentleman wants to see you."
I speculated in vain what gentleman
it could be. Visitors are rare in Church hours in Scotland. At length the
girl hit on a name not very unlike N—. I jumped out of bed in
perfect horror, and was told he was downstairs. On opening my bedroom
door, I saw to my surprise the man standing at the top of the staircase
close to my room door.
"What do you want?" I said. "What
are you doing here? I am in my room, and can’t be disturbed. You must go
downstairs at once."
Rather to my surprise, and much to
my relief, he obeyed me, but after getting to the bottom seemed to gain
determination and proceeded to demand the child. Where was she? Was she in
the house? A good deal followed that I did not understand. Again the
question, Was she in the house? I did not feel called on to tell him; so
contented myself with generalities and civilities,—asked him to be quiet,
to see this person and that; above all things to leave the house.
The truth was my real position began
to dawn on me. Here I was in a lonely house with no grown-up person within
hearing; our neighbours had all gone to Church; what could I do? I could
pray to God, not audibly. I went on speaking quietly to the man, whose
threats had now waxed furious. "He would kill us all. He would empty the
house. He would either have my life or the child. He could take both. He
had brought this with him (showing me a stick loaded at the ends),
and he would let me feel the weight of it." All this, and a great deal
more, accompanied by a perfect torrent of bad language in English, and
apparently in German. I could only stand still at the top of the
staircase, and try to remonstrate. I heard my own voice like a millwheel
far off; I was getting very faint, but all the time in my heart I was
talking to God, and praying Him not to let that man get the child. I
believed her to be in the nursery with the other children, and the door
was just at the bottom of the staircase. I prayed Him not to let the
little ones open it. This went on for twenty minutes. Why N— did not give
me the knock on the head he said he wanted to, I don’t know, except, I
suppose, that God did not let him.
At last help came: the children
began to come home from church. The first was a little orphan girl who
lived in the house, and hearing the man making a noise, and my voice
speaking as if in distress, she could not bear it, but rushed past him and
got upstairs to me, and then went for a man a little way off. Then
the little boys from the Boys’ Home on Granton Road, who in those days
always dined with us on Sunday, came in, and when the little messenger
brought the neighbour she had gone to seek, and others began to appear
from church, our visitor thought, I presume, he had better make off. Then
policemen came, and one of these, an old friend in the neighbourhood,
insisted upon bringing it to the notice of the authorities at Leith, and
for the sake of the children I felt it would be better to have a full
In a day or two a man and his
wife—Germans—who who had been supposed to be respectable, but who turned
out to be accomplices, called on me separately and used every argument to
dissuade me from this course. The man even again threatened my life, say
ing, "It is for your own sake, I warn you. You had better think while
you have time." To which I replied they must do as they liked: I could
not make bargains with a man like N—.
I am very thankful I made no
compromise, as after a full inquiry through the Foreign Office, involving
no doubt much that was painful to me, the Home Office gave instructions
that the port of Leith should be watched by the police, so that no
children should be allowed to land unless accompanied by their parents or
well accredited people in charge of them, and that immediate notice should
be given to the authorities of the arrival of any such; and thus the trade
in German children was stopped in Scotland. I was the means of seven
children being delivered from this man. I may mention here that no sooner
was the Criminal Law Amendment Bill passed than the man N— was safely
lodged in prison for a similar offence, and his accomplices found it
convenient to leave Edinburgh, so that the gang was broken up. The
following is an extract from a personal letter received from the
Procurator Fiscal for the county of Midlothian. Referring to this case, he
EDINBURGH, Nov. 1st,
MY DEAR Miss Stirling,-
I can see no possible objection to
your making reference in your paper to the case of the German children.
The result fully justified your interference. And all friends of the
movement for the protection of children should be indebted to you for your
persevering endeavours to get to the bottom of the business.
Yours very truly,
ROBERT L. STUART.
I had also the great satisfaction of receiving the
thanks of the German Government in the accompanying letters from Count
Münster, the German Ambassador
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY,
LONDON, March 8th, 1884.
MADAM,— In reply to your kind note
of February 26th, I beg to state that the question therein contained has
received my most careful attention. The report which the Consul-General
has, on my request, just made on this matter, shows that all necessary
steps have been taken to prevent, and to cause a thorough inquiry in the
matter by the competent authorities in Germany. In thanking you most
sincerely for the great interest you take in the fate of these poor German
children, I have the honour to be, Madam, very truly yours,
Also from the Imperial German
Leith, March 1st, 1884.
DEAR Miss STIRLING,—
I am directed by Burgomaster Dr.
Carl Petersen, the President of the Board of Foreign Affairs at Hamburg,
to intimate to you the safe arrival in good health and spirits of the girl
A. N—. I am at the same time instructed to express to you the best thanks,
and the recognition of the High Senate of Hamburg, of the humane and
carefully loving manner in which you have protected a daughter of a
subject of that State.
The Imperial German Consul,