Where the babies went: baby farming and child abandonment

At 10.30 on a Friday night in October 1893 Constable Farmer, patrolling Tupper Street, Enmore, stumbled across a 3-week-old baby girl.

The child was on the footpath, perhaps to be easily discovered, and the constable took her to the Benevolent Asylum in the city.

However, this was no guarantee of safety or survival. In the case of Kate de Lawarie (see below), Dr Collingwood of the Infants Home in Ashfield told a coronial inquest that two-thirds of abandoned children brought to the Ashfield Infants’ Home died from exposure due to abandonment.

But for now, the baby girl was better off than another who died earlier that year. On a Saturday in May Nelly Baker, who was 3 months and 3 days old, was thrown into the water at Circular Quay by her mother, Susan Moore who was just 18 years old.

At her trial Susan told the court that she had been seized with a sudden mania. The father would not help with the child’s maintenance and she could not get work while she had the girl. Trapped, Susan had simply lost her mind. A sympathetic jury found her not guilty due to insanity. They asked the judge to do something about the father, but he advised he could do nothing.

The Bulletin shows who it thinks is responsible for the business of baby farming. Mrs Grundy represented the Victorian values of propriety, decency, and domesticity.
The Bulletin Vol 11 No 544 19 July 1890 Page 11

Childhood in the 19th century was dangerous enough for the well off and the well fed; it was particularly dangerous for the children of the poor and the unwed.

For poor unmarried women with few options, pregnancy could be a disaster. Scorned by society as immoral and perhaps by their family, abandoned by the men who had fathered the child, and often unemployable with a child in tow, they were left in a terrible situation. 

In March of 1889 Sydney was scandalised by the death of Kate Reilly, a 23-year-old nurse at Callan Park Hospital for the Insane.   

Kate’s body was dumped in the yard of an empty house at No. 8 Macquarie Street South in the city. She had been dead for at least 43 hours before being discovered. Kate had visited the premises of unregistered doctor John Willis Smith, next door, a few days before. Investigating doctors were certain she had a successful abortion but then died from the effects of the operation.  

Doctor Smith was interviewed but denied any involvement. Colonial Secretary, Sir Henry Parkes, authorised the offer of a £100 reward for information leading to a conviction of “wilful murder” but there the investigation ended.  

NSW Government Gazette, 19/3/1889, Page 2135

While the suicides and murders of mothers and murder of babies made headlines, they were not the most common results of an unwed mother’s plight. 

Most mothers wanted the best for their children, seeking someone to adopt them or simply to care for them. In a time before pensions and adoption agencies others stepped in to provide that service.  


What became known as ‘baby farming’ – the receiving of children for adoption or for maintenance/minding for a fee – had existed for a very long time. It had received scant attention as it was generally confined to the ‘lower orders’. However, the practice had become a cause celebre throughout the British Empire at the end of the 19th century (1870-1900) due to sensationalist reporting of cases in the ‘popular press’ and the concerns of moral campaigners. 

Kate De Lawarie, adoption agent

One such baby farmer, or ‘adoption agent’, was Kate De Lawarie who operated in our area in 1888 and 1889. Kate arrived in Sydney from Mudgee as a 16-year-old, working as a general servant in Burwood and Croydon.  At 17 she married John Andrews, a cabman. He died two years later leaving Kate with a boy aged 2 and a girl aged 6 months who she adopted out. Later Kate spent two months in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital with rheumatic fever.  At her trial, Kate said she met a ‘Mrs Dunn’ while in hospital who had promised to help Kate find needlework when she recovered. Kate visited Mrs Dunn in her Waverley home but instead of needlework Mrs Dunn schooled her in the darker arts.

Kate’s modus operandi was simple. She placed ads in newspapers seeking children for adoption or responded to ads seeking adopters. Then, calling herself Lucy/Louisa Kingsley, Kate would arrange meetings with the women. At the meetings ‘Miss/Mrs Kingsley’ would tell them that she was representing Mrs Carlisle of Mudgee who was looking to adopt a baby.

The type of advertisement which would attract the attention of Kate De Lawarie.
Evening News Monday 28 January 1889 Page 5.

Unsurprisingly, each baby presented was just what Mrs Carlisle was looking for and ‘Miss/Mrs Kingsley’ would deliver it to her in Mudgee. She only asked for the cost of the train ticket, 15 shillings, as payment. This ruse was so well honed that Kate even refused extra funds offered to her by Louisa Clarke, a widow from Waverley, saying she did not wish to rob her. Louisa’s baby was found by Harriet Hughes when she heard cries from the toilet of the unoccupied house next to hers on Stanmore Road, Petersham.

Kate is known to have taken and abandoned eight children between December 1888 and February 1889. Police believed she had taken around 20 infants in total, but they could only prosecute her for these eight.

The list of children abandoned and charges made against Kate De Lawarie, March 1889.
NSW Police Gazette and Weekly Record of Crime Issue 10. 6/3/1889 Page 78.

Elizabeth Hynd’s one-month-old child was first, found by Mrs Frances Martin at 6pm on Wilford Street, behind Enmore Road. Taken to the Benevolent Asylum the child died three weeks later from “infantile cholera” that it had clearly acquired at the asylum.

Next was the infant son of Annie Keast of Camden Street in Newtown. Annie took nearly three months to agree to hand over her son after first meeting Kate in October of 1888. They finally met in Summer Hill and after leaving Annie, Kate deposited the child on the verandah of Mrs Elizabeth Pope’s home in Carlton Crescent, Summer Hill. The boy was placed in the Infant’s Home at Ashfield, dying two weeks later of diphtheria.

Jane Ryan had given her boy to Margaret Jackson of Terry Street in Tempe to nurse for 10 shillings a week. Mrs Jackson had the permission of Jane’s mother to adopt out the child if she could. On 29 January 1889 she gave the 4-month-old boy to Kate for Mrs Carlisle. On this occasion Kate received £2 and she left the child in Pitt Street in the city. The boy was found that rainy night by John McIntyre in a gutter, soaking wet from the flowing water.

The abandonment that broke the case occurred on 9 February 1889. Annie Lockett, a servant from Andreas Street in Petersham, had placed an ad seeking a “kind person to adopt a baby girl, three days old”. Annie received the usual reply from ‘Mrs Kingsley’ saying she was in town seeking a baby for Mrs Carlisle. They met and the baby, now 8 days old, was handed over. Kate asked for 15 shillings and six pence for the train. The little girl didn’t make it past the railway station at Petersham. 

That afternoon a young girl, Florence Tremlett, from Neville Street, Marrickville found her in the toilet of the ladies waiting room at Petersham Station. Again, the baby went to the Benevolent Asylum where it later died of diarrhoea, also likely contracted at the asylum. 

Petersham Railway Station c.1885
NSW State Archives Digital ID: NRS17420_882_8
Series: NRS 17420 State Rail Authority Archives Photographic Reference Print Collection

At Kate’s trial, which took place at the same time as the discovery of Kate Reilly’s body, the judge had some kind words to offer. Sentencing her to five years in prison per charge, to be served concurrently, Judge McFarland said he was shocked that the things revealed in evidence could be happening in Sydney. However, he promised Kate, as “she cried bitterly”, that if she behaved herself for three years he would see what he could do about shortening her sentence.

He was not so gentle on the parents of the infants. His view was that they had been prepared to sell their own flesh and blood in a shameful manner “for a few shillings”, they must have known the children would be abandoned. He found them guiltier than Kate and hoped that the Crown would make every effort to bring them or some of them to justice. 

The ‘angel makers’

It was the baby farmers, almost exclusively older women, who took children into care, who became the most notorious. Sensationalised in the press as ‘angel makers’ – because many babies died while in their care – their stories were banner headlines. Whether the deaths were natural or caused by neglect or worse was not really up for debate, it was always assumed they were deliberately killed and the women portrayed as living off the misery of others.

The first woman to be hanged for baby farming in the British Empire was Margaret Waters of London, England in 1870. It was claimed that Margaret murdered over 40 infants in her care. In response, the British parliament passed the Infant Life Protection Act in 1872 to regulate, but not prohibit, baby farming.

The Margaret Waters case is front page news in one of England’s very first ‘tabloids’.
The Illustrated Police News, Law Courts and Weekly News. https://www.messynessychic.com/2021/05/28/baby-farming-a-victorian-horror-story/

Perhaps the most notorious baby farmer in England was Amelia Dyer who, like Kate De Lawarie, acted as an adoption agent. But unlike Kate, Amelia Dyer didn’t abandon her charges, she killed them. She was hanged in 1896 for the murder of a child but Thames Valley Police believe up to 50 may have died.

New Zealand baby farmer Minnie Dean was hanged for the death of a child in 1895. Three children are known to have died in her care but it is now thought she was innocent and they may have died from natural causes.

In the colonies of Australia, there were two infamous cases in the 1890s. In Melbourne, Victoria, Frances Knorr (AKA Minnie Thwaites) – a young woman of 25 – was hanged on 15 January 1894 for the murder of one of three babies found buried in homes she rented.

And in Sydney, NSW in August 1893 John Makin was hanged for the murder of baby Horace Murray, while his wife Sarah had her death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The bodies of 15 infants were found in the backyards of various houses occupied by the Makin family.

John Makin. Police photo 17/12/1892
Gaol Inmates/Prisoners Photos Index 1870-1930
Item No: [3/6055] | Digital ID: IE271266 | Series: NRS2138 | Page No: 94 | Photo No: 5567. https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/#
Sarah Makin. Police photo. 3/12/1892
Gaol Inmates/Prisoners Photos Index 1870-1930
Item No: [3/6055] | Digital ID: IE271053 | Series: NRS2138 | Page No: 95 | Photo No: 5568. https://www.records.nsw.gov.au/#

The case was a sensation. The NSW parliament had just passed our version of the British law of 1872. It was known as the Children’s Protection Act 1892 and dealt with the issue in a similar manner to the British law. The taking in of children was to be regulated rather than banned, including how much money people received for their services. 

Sarah Bentley and Mary Stacey

The Makin case is well documented (see notes below), so let’s look at a ‘bit player’ in the trial; a woman called Sarah Bentley. Sarah lived just a few doors down from young Florence Tremlett in Neville Street, Marrickville. Her story is similar to other women mentioned here. It sheds some light on the services available to young unwed mothers and on the providers, many of whom were kind and caring; not the monsters so often portrayed.

Sarah had arrived in Adelaide in 1851 at the age of 20 with her husband Cornelius, aged 24. They came as assisted immigrants, however shortly after arriving they left South Australia for NSW. 

By 1867 Cornelius had a claim in the Mongarlowe (Little River) gold field near Braidwood. While working the claim, Cornelius was badly injured when his son drove a pick axe about two inches into his lower back. 

Cornelius became a preacher and son George continued mining until killed by a cave-in in 1879. George had been intending to marry Matilda Dunn, and after his death she moved into the Bentley household. But in 1882 Matilda’s father, getting wind of some trouble, collected Matilda and took her back to the family home. Her parents were suspicious that Matilda was pregnant, but she denied it. When pressed to visit a doctor for an examination she agreed but the night before took strychnine. A post mortem showed Matilda was “within two months of her confinement”.

Many young women fell pregnant while living in the homes of others. Either where they were employed or where they were living. The power relationships within a household and between men and women made women vulnerable. Suicide was one solution young women chose to escape their situation.

The Bentleys left the district, eventually losing all their claims and land leases, and moved into Victoria Road, Marrickville. In early 1883 Cornelius got the council contract to collect household rubbish in Stanmore for one pound per week and Sarah established herself as a ’ladies nurse’ working from her home. Sometimes known as ‘monthly nurse’, Sarah’s role was to look after mothers and babies for the first month after birth. It was only a short step from ladies nurse to midwife; assisting women with their births.

Many women became ladies nurses, midwives or baby farmers because of their household circumstances: Cornelius’s injury may well have limited his ability to work, Margaret Waters was a widow, Amelia Dyer’s husband abandoned her, Minnie Dean and her husband were very poor and had many financial woes, as did the Makins.

At the end of 1883 the Bentleys moved to Neville Street, with Sarah continuing her role as a ladies nurse. It was almost a decade later that she would become an unwitting participant in the Makin case.

In April 1892 Mary Stacey entered Sarah’s house to have her baby. A little girl, Daisy Pearl West Stacey, was born and Mary and child apparently stayed in Sarah’s house for nine weeks. This was a long time and it is hard to know why. Was the birth a difficult one? Did Mary have enough money to rest easily? Did Sarah take pity on them both? Or was it just Daisy who stayed with Sarah? Eventually Mary placed an ad in the ‘Evening News’.

Mary Stacey (using the pseudonym Iran) seeks an adaptor/carer for Daisy. Note: the premium from “Mrs Williams” was an inducement for taking the baby girl. Also the “widow in distress” could have turned to “baby farming”, as others did, to alleviate her poverty.
Evening News 21/6/1892 Page 1.

Mary received a reply from the Makins under the alias ‘Mr and Mrs Ray’. What she and Sarah Bentley did next contradicts Judge McFarland’s view of parents and the popular view of people involved at some level in baby farming.

Mary visited the Makins at their Redfern address to see if they were suitable people and they did their best to impress her. It worked and Daisy was collected from the Bentley’s house along with two pounds and clothing a few days later. The clothing had been made by Mary and Sarah Bentley and would be used in evidence against the Makins.

Mary expected the Makin/Rays to return with Daisy for visits and this happened once about four days after she was collected. Already Mary and Sarah noticed a deterioration in her health. Sarah told Makin/Ray that he needed to “be kind to the baby and take care of it”. John Makin assured them that they were moving to the country (Hurstville) and were buying a cow. He promised to visit again but never did.

Mary, Cornelius and Sarah searched Redfern and Hurstville for the Makin/Rays to no avail. It wasn’t until the discovery of bodies at the Makin’s house in Burren Street, Erskineville that answers were to be had. 

Mary and Sarah gave evidence at coronial inquests and Daisy’s handmade clothes were presented in evidence. While Daisy’s body was never conclusively identified, it was possibly one of two found at the Redfern address. 

After her sad time in the spotlight Mary Stacey disappears from the records. Sarah Bentley remained at Neville Street until she died in 1901. The last years of her life may not have been happy ones as in 1896 she advertised for a middle-aged woman as a general servant to help a “sick lady” and family of three.

Following the Children’s Protection Act of 1892 there has been a plethora of legislation in NSW – 33 acts up to 2009 – dealing with the care of children and infants. The role of carer has been transferred to the state and state-supported institutions.

Rod Aanensen


‘Where the babies went’ is a reference to ‘How the Babies Go’ – a regular headline and column featured in many Sydney newspapers from 1889 to 1904, which highlighted instances of baby farming, child abandonment and infanticide.

The Baby Farmers: a chilling tale of missing babies, shameful secrets and murder in 19th century Australia by Annie Cossins (Allen & Unwin, 2014), covers the Makin case extensively, Sarah Bentley and Mary Stacey appear on pages 165-168.

There is much written on infanticide, baby farming, and society’s response to both in Australia. See works by Professor Shurlee Swain, amongst others, for information on the topic. 

2 thoughts on “Where the babies went: baby farming and child abandonment”

  1. Rod, this article is VERY impressive! Though I’ll need to read it again to fully appreciate it.

    Mark Matheson



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