The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies

When Annie Sweet and her daughter Molly move into their new home in the Holloway area of London, Annie becomes obsessed with researching the lives of the people who previously lived in the house. Looking at the 1901 census records she discovers a list of the former residents of 43 Stanley Road, including William George, a police inspector, and one of his lodgers, a young music hall star whose name was Lily Painter. As Annie begins to investigate Lily’s story, she uncovers a scandal involving two notorious ‘baby farmers’, Nurse Sach and Mrs Walters – and at the same time, she becomes aware of a ghostly presence at 43 Stanley Road.

The book has four different narrators: Annie Sweet in the present day, Lily Painter and Inspector William George in Edwardian London, and another character who narrates some later sections set during World War II. This could have become confusing, but it didn’t – it was actually very easy to follow what was going on and is an example of multiple time periods and narrators being handled perfectly! I found all the different threads of the story equally interesting and everything seemed relevant to the overall plot. And I appreciated the way the author had made an effort to change her writing style to suit the voice of each narrator: Inspector George’s journal has a formal feel, for example, while the wartime narrator uses a lot of slang. My only criticism is that the plot relies heavily on coincidences and the way in which all the parts of the story are brought together at the end is both predictable and hard to believe.

As well as being a great story, I was also able to learn something from this book. I didn’t know anything about baby farmers and had never heard of Amelia Sach and Annie Walters, but they were real people and you can read about their crimes online. Baby farmers were people who advertised for pregnant women, offering to care for them before and during the birth and to arrange for adoption of the child if necessary. Many of these mothers were desperate young women who knew they would be unable to keep their child for financial reasons or because it was illegitimate. Of course, the young mother had to pay the baby farmer for their services and while some baby farmers may have genuinely tried to find an adoptive home for the child, others would just take the money and murder the baby. As you can probably imagine, this is all very disturbing to read about and I did have tears in my eyes once or twice!

Finally, I should point out that although the book is called The Ghost of Lily Painter, and yes there is a ghost, this is not really a traditional ‘ghost story’. Although a few scenes were slightly creepy, I was never actually frightened so if you’re looking for something scary and chilling you might be disappointed. I would recommend this book to people who enjoy historical fiction set in the Edwardian period and World War II, and despite the baby farming storyline this is a light, entertaining read.

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8 thoughts on “The Ghost of Lily Painter by Caitlin Davies”

  1. Oh, what a great way to draw attention to what I assume is a lesser-known branch of criminal history. Wow. I don’t know how people could be so callous. I also had a totally different vague picture in my head of the term “baby farmer” before you explained what it was!

  2. This sounds a real intriguing book. One for my list I think.

    If you can get hold of Nicola Upson, Two for Sorrow which also features the ‘baby farmers Amelia Sach and Annie Walters. It is a rather fascinating though sad and morbid subject.

  3. Unavailable through interlibrary loan in the US – as is Florence & Giles, which you reviewed earlier this year. I must start a list for my next visit to the UK.

  4. I’ve been wondering about this one. The subject matter had great potential, but it could have been dreadful if it was handled wrong. I’ll be looking out for a copy now.

    1. I thought the subject of the baby farming was handled in quite a sensitive way. I’d be interested to see your thoughts if you get the chance to read this one.

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