Uncovering Our Morbid Past: Sydney’s Baby Killers

by Lauren Piggott

Baby Farmers John and Sarah Makin Source: City Library of Wollongong

Baby Farmers John and Sarah Makin
Source: City Library of Wollongong

If you were a woman living in 1800s Sydney, you didn’t get much say in how things would work in your life. Babies out of wedlock were considered shameful and taboo, and young women didn’t have many options available to them. There were no welfare benefits for single mothers, as there are today, and many working-class women could not afford to keep their babies. These dire circumstances led these women to reluctantly turn to advertisements in newspapers to find a family for their child.

Those willing to adopt these children would do so in exchange for money, and notoriously became known as Baby Farmers. However, unbeknownst to single mothers at the time, when a Baby Farmer came to pick up their child, it would often be the last time they would be seen.

This is exactly what happened to Amber Murray, an eighteen year old who placed an advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1892, calling out for a loving mother to adopt her illegitimate son Horace. John and Sarah Makin grasped at the opportunity and responded to the ad. The Makins began this service of adopting unwanted babies as a source of income when John was injured in a work accident and couldn’t keep his job. Both were eager to take on as many babies as they would be provided with a weekly income of ten shillings in child support payments, and often a premium of a few pounds.

Still feeling attached to the child she nursed for nine months, Amber wished to see Horace every few weeks, and while John Makin would never fail to turn up to collect a payment, he had ample excuses when she would request a meeting. Growing suspicious, Amber visited the Makin’s Redfern residence, however the family could not be found. They had picked up all their belongings in the middle of the night and moved to Macdonaldtown.

It wasn’t until October 1892 that the Makins came to the attention of the police when workmen discovered the bodies of two children blocking the drain at their previous residence in Burren Street. Investigators tracked them down in Chippendale and both Sarah and John Makin, as well as four of their daughters were arrested for the murder of Horace Murray, though only the parents would be charged for the crimes.

Police investigators lead by Sergeant James Joyce began an operation to search all the backyards the Makins had occupied. The result was finding up to thirteen more bodies buried in their previous homes. Prosecutors of the trial argued that the Makins had never intended to look after the babies they adopted, believing they only hoped to make a profit and killed the babies as early as possible while continuing to receive money off the parents who believed their children were still alive.

The Makins defence was that the babies had died of natural causes, and while that may have been true for some, it was too much of a coincidence to believe it happened to all the babies under their care.

Evidence presented at the trial could suggest that some of the children were buried alive, but to this day it remains unknown. The jury found a guilty verdict for both John and Sarah Makin for the murder of Horace Murray, following which John would be hung at Darlinghurst Gaol while Sarah was to serve a gaol sentence for life. After nineteen years, Sarah was released on parole due to her age and declining health.

Though possibly the most infamous case, John and Sarah Makin were not the only Baby Farmers of their time. Ellen Batts from Woollahra was on trial for murder of twelve children who had died in her care between November 1888 and October 1889. She also desperately needed to make a living after she left her husband, though curiously the jury returned a ‘not guilty’ verdict to separate murder charges made against her. Kate De Lawrie on the other hand was a Sydney-sider who pleaded guilty in 1898 to adopting and then abandoning eight infants and was sentenced to five years on each charge.

This dark side of Sydney history was born out of the extreme poverty experienced by the working-class at the time, but sadly sociopaths like the Makins resorted to the worst possible crime to better their financial situation. In response to these cases, laws regarding child welfare and adoption changed immediately, though surprisingly baby farming was not officially outlawed until 1939.


If you enjoyed our story on Sydney’s Baby Killers, check out our other interesting Sydney Stories and popular Sydney Top 5’s:



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