Review: The Baby Farmers by Annie Cossins

Title: The Baby Farmers

Author: Annie Cossins

Published: Allen & Unwin June 2013

Status: Read from June 05 to 06, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the author}

My Thoughts:

In The Baby Farmers, Annie Cossins examines in detail the investigation and trial of Sarah and John Makin, who in 1892 stood accused of the murder of 13 infants found buried in their backyard.

A hundred years ago, women who fell pregnant out of wedlock had very few choices. Prevailing morality condemned them no matter their circumstances, and keeping the child with them was usually impossible. Some risked backyard abortion services but many simple concealed their pregnancies as best they could, gave birth alone in their rooms, or in stables or in nearby bush and then abandoned the infants to the elements. On average, 6000 children under the age of five died each year in the New South Wales colony and while some of those deaths can be attributed to the common disease that plagued the population, like Scarlet Fever, Syphilis and Measles, “So frequent was infanticide that The Evening News carried a weekly column entitled ‘How The Babies Go’ which reported on the number of dead babies found in the city each week.” (p75) The bodies of many more babies were likely never discovered.

Mothers who were unable to discard their offspring, or perhaps hoped one day to be reunited with them, sought a ‘kind mother to adopt [a] child for a life’. Some mothers placed their own advertisements while others responded to those placed by baby farmers, women and men, often couples, eager to ‘adopt’ a child in exchange for a weekly stipend or preferably a lump sum (premium) payment. Payments varied but they were rarely enough to raise a child, amounts £2-£5 being most common in order to be affordable for the servant and working class that most often utilised the service.

The case of Sarah and John Makin sheds light on what happened to these infants once left in the care of a baby farmer. While some of the mothers believed their child would be loved and well cared for, others understood that the adoption payment was little more than a disposal fee. The Makin’s, it is suggested, variously starved, overdosed, smothered or otherwise murdered the infants in their care, burying them in the backyards of the houses in which they lived at the time. Baby farming was a business where turnover was important to maximise profit so the Makin’s, like other baby farmers, ‘adopted’ as many infants as they could.

As part of my degree in Early Childhood Education, we were required to study the history of child welfare in Australia so I was familiar with the basic facts of this sensational case and the changes in heralded in law. In The Baby Farmer is a detailed study of how the hypocrisy of religion, government and law encouraged the growth of baby farming as an industry, the backgrounds of Sarah and John Makin and the complex trial that followed the discovery of the wrapped and buried infants.

It seems the author found several errors in the prosecution of the Makin’s, who were eventually sentenced to death for the murder of one of the infants discovered. Cossins details the trial, quoting and paraphrasing court records, news reports and other sources. Due to a number of factors, the deaths of the other 12 were dismissed as unproved but there can be no doubt that the Makin’s systematically murdered children to profit from the premiums offered for their ‘care’.

While the writing can be dry and dense at times, The Baby Farmers offers intriguing insight into the socioeconomic period at the turn of the last century. I was fascinated and appalled by the chilling tale of the rise and fall the notorious couple, Sarah and John Makin but mostly I am left  extremely thankful that today in Australia most of the stigma surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock has disappeared, that the government offers financial and practical assistance to single parents, that abortion is accessible and legal and that the life and welfare of babies and children are valued.

Available to Purchase

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michelle Walker
    Jun 08, 2013 @ 19:51:30

    Sounds like an intriguing but heartbreaking read.

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  2. Kate Forsyth
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 09:41:20

    This sounds chilling but fascinating! What a terrible part of our history – thank you for sharing

    Like

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  3. Mandy
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 13:53:48

    Interesting review.
    Just an FYI, please stop using ‘s to indicate plural – you kept writing ‘mother’s’ when you meant ‘mothers’ etc. Perhaps I’m a bit of a grammar nazi but just needed to point it out.

    Like

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  4. Marg
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 14:37:15

    This sounds fascinating, but I am not sure I could read it!

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  5. Go Book Yourself!
    Jun 09, 2013 @ 22:55:34

    Wow sounds fascinating. Adding this to the pile.

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    Reply

  6. Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews
    Jun 10, 2013 @ 09:49:50

    It is shocking how low people can stoop isn’t it… thank goodness things have changed for the better. Important and very compelling topic, but I think reading this would just sadden me.

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  7. perkinsy
    Jun 21, 2013 @ 08:23:33

    I was going to click on ‘like’ but that seems rather inappropriate for this book. This left me thinking about all those people who could have lived but whose lives were extinguished at such a young age in a society that regarded itself as ‘civilised’.

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  8. Trackback: Histories, Biographies, Memoirs – Roundup #5 2013 | Australian Women Writers Challenge

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