In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before the introduction of legal adoption, women who had illegitimate children had very few options open to them.

There was a social stigma associated with women bearing children out-of-wedlock at this time. But apart from being unmarried and bringing shame upon their families, they were often young and working-class, and had no other means of financial support. If they were unable to keep their children, unmarried mothers (and sometimes fathers) were obliged to send their children away to an orphan school or a destitute asylum, although these sorts of institutions were beginning to be phased out.

The State Children’s Relief Act 1881, for example, shifted the emphasis away from placing orphaned, abandoned or neglected children into large congregate care institutions. The preferred option was for children to be ‘boarded-out’ (similar to foster care today), but the legislation had the unintended consequence of allowing unscrupulous individuals to take over the care role.

For many unmarried and destitute women, a last resort was to send their children to a baby farmer.

A baby farmer was the term given to a person who would care for children in their own home, but the implication was that there was bad treatment or neglect involved.

Baby farmers either privately adopted the child in question, which meant that the parents paid them a lump sum, or the parents gave them regular payments. In some cases, when the children given into care were very young (as they usually were because orphanages and other large institutions did not generally accept newborn infants), baby farming involved wet nursing.

In Australia the practice of baby farming came under greater scrutiny as the 19th century drew towards a close, particularly because there were a number of unsettling cases where babies had died. Were they clear-cut cases of murder, so that the baby farmers could make a profit? Or did the deaths occur due to neglect, given that many baby farmers were just as impoverished as the mothers they were replacing?

One sensational baby farming case in Sydney in 1889 was that of Mrs Ellen Batts. In October, coronial inquests were held into the deaths of three children who had been in the care of Batts, who lived at a house at Vernon Street in Woollahra. The first inquest concluded that the death of ‘the infant Ethel Mary Archibald was due to improper and insufficient feeding … and upon this verdict Mrs. Batts was committed for trial on a charge of willful murder‘.

During the inquest, and later at the first of the two trials held at the Central Criminal Court, it was revealed that Batts had three children of her own. However, she had been living apart from her husband for seven years, and he did not support her financially. Batts deposed that she ‘was a poor woman working for her living; had to support herself and her two children ever since she left her husband; she had earned her living by mangling and nursing children, had also been in service’.

Of the fourteen children admitted to Batts’ care between November 1888 and October 1889, twelve had died.

In the first trial, the charge of murder was reduced to manslaughter, ‘and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty‘. At the second trial into the murder ‘of the child Elizabeth Cohen’ the jury again ‘returned a verdict of not guilty‘. It was ‘intimated that it was not intended to proceed with the third charge against the prisoner and she was discharged’.

Within a few years, the moral compass had shifted. The Children’s Protection Act 1892 brought ‘private arrangements’ for orphaned and destitute children under the control of the State. This Act had, in part, been influenced by the gruesome case of Sarah and John Makin, who were accused of murdering up to 13 children in their care, and burying them in the backyards at homes they had rented in the inner-city suburbs of Redfern, Macdonaldtown and Chippendale.

Baby farmer Sarah Makin - Wollongong City Library FM2/318/5/4-6

On 11 October 1892, two plumbers – James Mahoney and Francis Cooney – were contracted to lay pipes in the backyard of a two-storey terrace house on Burren Street, in Macdonaldtown.  While they were digging, they discovered the bodies of two infants.

Police were called to the scene and it was found that the Makins had lived at the house with four of their children, from June until mid-August 1892, at which time they moved to Wells Street, Redfern.

The Makin family were impoverished, John Makin having been injured in a work accident. The family moved every two months or so because they were always behind on the rent. And it fell upon Sarah Makin to earn an income by taking in children. But baby farming was a risky business – there was a very high mortality rate for young children separated from their mothers, mainly due to nutritional and medical reasons.

Following the discovery of the two bodies at Burren Street, police set to work digging up the backyard, as well as the backyards of other houses that the Makins had lived at since 1890. Thirteen bodies were found in total. No cause of death could be found for any of them, and only two could be positively identified. In October 1892, inquests were held into the deaths of Horace Amber Murray and another unnamed child born to Minnie Davis and Horace Bottomley.

The case of Horace Amber Murray was tried at the Central Criminal Court the following year, and John Makin was sentanced to death. Despite an appeal to the High Court, he was hung at Darlinghurst Gaol in August 1893. His wife Sarah was sent to gaol, but was released in 1911.

Kate De Lawrie was also treated harshly in the eyes of the law. In February 1898, she was ‘committed for trial on four charges of procuring infants through the medium of bogus advertising and afterwards abandoning them’, with police having connected her with eleven cases of abandonment, including an 18-month old child left ‘on the side of the railway at Burwood’, and another ‘four months’ old infant [who was] left in a street in Darlington’ on a rainy night. On 11 March, it was reported that de Lawrie had ‘pleaded guilty to abandoning eight infants whom she had obtained from parents, with premiums to adopt, and has been sentenced to five years on each charge, the sentences to be concurrent.’

The NSW Children’s Protection Act 1902 attempted to redress problems of baby farming and parental abandonment. The Act required the registration of all births and the ‘supervision and registration of nursing homes and private homes of children under four years old’. The legislation also ensured that adopted children between ages of 6 and 12 were sent to school. Legal adoption was introduced under the Child Welfare Act 1923, but it was not until 1939 that baby farming was finally outlawed under revisions to the Act.