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Posted on 27 Jun 2013 in Non-Fiction | 2 comments

ANNIE COSSINS The Baby Farmers. Reviewed by Linda Funnell

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Sydney in the 1890s: shame, syphilis and infanticide.

If you were unmarried and pregnant, or married and unable to afford another child, you had very few choices in Sydney in the late 1800s.

There was no contraception, no safe abortion, no support for poor families (much less single mothers), and no child welfare. In New South Wales the Children’s Protection Act was only passed in 1892. Each week the corpses of babies abandoned by desperate mothers were recovered in public places.

In this environment baby farming thrived. Newspapers regularly ran advertisements such as this:

WANTED, Kind Lady to adopt little girl 2 months’ old, or to care for. Iran, Petersham post office.

Often a ‘premium’, usually a few pounds, would be offered to whomever took the child.  Sometimes the mother would want to visit the child after the ‘adoption’, sometimes she would provide baby clothes or even an ongoing stipend for the child’s needs.

Baby farmers answered these advertisements and took in far more babies than they could possibly look after. The babies invariably died, most commonly of neglect and starvation. Their cries could be subdued with liberal amounts of the opiate-laced Godfrey’s Cordial. At a time of high infant mortality, the death of a baby was not uncommon.

The advertisement above received this reply:

Dear Iran

I will take your little baby for life at a small sum of £3 or £3 10s, or whatever terms we may come to. It is not just for the sake of the money, but just to give the child an outfit. You need never trouble about your baby’s welfare. She will have every attention and the love of a kind mother. We are on the eve of going to the suburbs on a poultry farm to a fine healthy part, so if you will come down we will explain things and make arrangements.

Yours faithfully,

Mr Ray

109 George-street, Redfern, up the steps.

‘Mr Ray’ was in fact one of the many aliases of John Makin. He and his wife Sarah were two of the most notorious baby farmers in Sydney, and it is their story that Annie Cossins tells here.

The Makins were convicted of the murder of baby Horace Amber Murray in 1893. John Makin was hanged; his wife was sentenced to life imprisonment. The corpses of 13 babies were found buried in the back yard of the house they had briefly rented in Burren Street, Macdonaldtown. Investigations by Sergeant James Joyce of the Newtown police found more babies buried in the yards of other houses the Makins had occupied. (The Makins were masters of the ‘midnight flit’ and moved frequently, staying one step ahead of rent-collectors and over-curious mothers.)

The case was a public sensation. Spectators surged to catch a glimpse of the infamous Makins at the numerous inquests and at the trial. In public Sarah Makin covered her face with a handkerchief, moaned and fainted; husband John remained stony-faced; at one point daughter Blanche unleashed a tirade of abuse at her father; another daughter gave evidence against her parents.

What kind of person becomes a baby farmer? In her account of the Makins, Annie Cossins has dug into both John’s and Sarah’s backgrounds.

Sarah’s father, Emmanuel Sutcliffe, was an ex-convict, a volatile man ‘who rode around the neighbourhood [in the Hunter Valley] with a loaded gun and a chip on his shoulder’. Sarah too was said to have a temper, and there was a story that she had been seen to ‘knock her own blind mother down with a chair’.

In an intriguing digression, Cossins tells the story of John’s grandmother, Mary Bolton, returning to Parramatta’s Female Factory in 1827 just after 200 women, driven by hunger, staged a mass escape. (The women eventually returned to their prison after looting local bread shops.)

A year before his marriage to Sarah in 1871, John Makin had already been before the Insolvency Court. He was a petty criminal and in 1881 he was convicted of stealing a sheep and went to prison for three months. At the time Sarah had six children to feed and rent to pay, and Cossins makes a convincing case that during this period Sarah, destitute, took up prostitution and contracted syphilis. Syphilis could account for some of her odd behaviour at the inquests and trial (though elsewhere in the book she is shown to be an expert actress, particularly when dealing with mothers about to hand over their babies). The subsequent deaths of her next three babies, in 1884, 1886 and 1888, from congenital syphilis would seem to bear this out. These deaths may also provide a clue, beyond the imperative of poverty, to how she was able to stomach baby-farming:

During these years, Sarah’s life would have been filled with sickly babies, all with similar, distressing symptoms, and their untimely deaths. How she and John reacted to their deaths can only be guessed at, although guilt, grief and shame is a potent mixture. Did Sarah and John harden their hearts, becoming indifferent to young children?

From ‘at least 1888 onwards’, Cossins estimates, Sarah’s family was reliant on ‘the revolving door of mothers and babies’ for income.

Annie Cossins encountered Sarah Makin’s story when she was asked to portray her in a dramatised documentary, and there is a sense of a certain amount of special pleading going on in the book. Towards the end she gives a rather queasy assessment that:

While it is almost certain that both John and Sarah were involved in serial murder or manslaughter, they were the economic victims of the 1890s depression and the diseases that went hand in hand with Sydney’s underclass.

Given the accumulated evidence the book so meticulously presents, that ‘almost’ seems an unnecessary qualification. It’s quite clear that babies did die while in the Makins’ hands; it is possible some died from natural causes, but it would stretch credulity to say they all did.

Cossins painstakingly combs through the evidence presented at the inquests and the trial and concludes that the baby the Makins were convicted of killing and burying in Redfern was most likely still alive when the family moved from Redfern to Burren Street.  During the trial, evidence that would be excluded as prejudicial today was accepted. None of the inquests, or the trial, could determine how the babies died.

However flawed the legal process of the time, it is impossible not to feel that the Makins deserved their fates.

This book is a fascinating slice of social history, and engages with its portraits of the relinquishing mothers and the unstinting efforts of Sergeant James Joyce to uncover the Makins’ crimes. It is also replete with details such as the course of syphilis and the nature of grave wax.

Cossins unfolds her narrative with energy and passion, and isn’t afraid of colourful language: convicts are ‘slave labourers’, babies are ‘bought and sold like cats and dogs’ and baby farmers ‘effectively operated as kennels for babies to be “put down”’.

Anyone interested in women’s history or Australian urban history will find this book a compelling read.

A note for local readers: Macdonaldtown changed its name to Erskineville in 1893, and at some point the Burren Street that the Makins made notorious became Bridge Street. Readers who know nearby Burren Street, Newtown, may initially be puzzled, as I was, by references to the street running parallel to the railway line – this map published between 1886 and 1888 makes it clear that in those days Burren Street continued on beyond Erskineville station and ran south alongside the railway line.

Annie Cossins The Baby Farmers Allen & Unwin 2013 PB 304pp $29.00

You can buy this book from Abbey’s here.

If you would like to see if it is available through Newtown Library, click here.


  1. Is this available in large print?

  2. Don’t think so, yet. But you can can the e-version and increase the font if you have a KIndle.