Baby Farmers

November 25, 2013

Burren #3

I recently read Annie Cossin’s book “The Baby Farmers” (which the publisher sent to me in the hope that I might blog about it – be careful what you wish for!). As well as being the story of John and Sarah Makin, it is also a glimpse into life in Sydney in the late 19th century. The Makins were “baby farmers” which basically meant that for a fee they would “adopt” the babies of unmarried mothers. Unfortunately the economic reality was that the money wasn’t enough to fund ongoing care and the babies were not fed properly, neglected and allowed to die. An opium based “medicine” called “Godfrey’s Cordial” was used to pacify the dying babies (so the neighbours didn’t notice). It was also used in higher doses to achieve a quicker result.

The book brings this unsavoury part of our history to life and made me contemplate that society’s attitude to unmarried mums has only really changed in the past few decades. For me,  the following extract from p258 sums it up:  “[Their] crimes were also the crimes of a society that condoned infanticide while, paradoxically, stigmatising unmarried mothers. The legal status of an illegitimate child was described as ‘filius nulls’, child of no-one, which sums up the legal and social reality of those times. Since these children had no legal status, it is hardly surprising they had little or no social value. Life was cheap for illegitimate babies. Baby farmers provided an unsavoury but necessary service that filled the vacuum left wide open by government policies, the market economy and the limited assistance available through charitable organisations.”

So what happened to the Makins? Although the bodies of 13 babies were been found buried in the backyards of various houses where the Makins had lived in late 1892 (and there were undoubtedly more that went undiscovered), they were both (possibly wrongly) convicted of the murder of only one of them: Amber Murray. After their unsuccessful appeal to the Privy Council, John was hanged and Sarah served 18 years. She was released in 1911.

There are a couple of interesting post scripts to this story:

  1. The Makin case, remained an authority in relation to similar fact/propensity evidence until those terms were replaced with tendency and coincidence in the 1995 Evidence Act. There are still several references to it in “Cross on Evidence”;
  2. The book’s author (a UNSW academic by day) got to play Sarah Makin in an episode of the TV series “Deadly Women” which showed on the Discovery channel; and
  3. With the book under my arm, I also engaged in some (Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson style) amateur history work and went to Burren Street, Erskineville to see if the infamous house (where 6 of the bodies were found) was still there. Although the number has changed from 25 to 27, it is there and the photograph above matches a sketch that is in the book. I didn’t have the heart to knock on the door to ask the current occupants if they knew they were living on a 120 year old crime scene!
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2 Responses to “Baby Farmers”

  1. Troy Says:

    What a fascinating story. I wonder what the owners in Erskinville would have said.

    • Paul Cutler Says:

      My sister in law said I should send them the book. If it was her house and she found out that history, it would take about 5 minutes for the property to be on the market!


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