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Sarah Jane Makin (1845–1918)

by Heather Radi

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with John Makin

Sarah Jane Makin (1845-1918), by unknown photographer, 1890s

Sarah Jane Makin (1845-1918), by unknown photographer, 1890s

Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society, P10\P10162

John Makin (1845-1893), drayman, and his wife Sarah Jane Makin (1845-1918), midwife, became notorious as 'baby farmers'. John was born on 14 February 1845 at Dapto, New South Wales, fourth of eleven children of William Samuel Makin, farmer, and his wife Ellen Selena, née Bolton. Sarah was born on 20 December 1845 in Sydney, only daughter and elder child of former convict Emanuel Sutcliffe, miller, and his Irish-born wife Ellen, née Murphy. On 29 April 1865 Sarah married with Presbyterian forms Charles Edwards, a mariner, in Sydney. They had a daughter. On 27 August 1871 Sarah Jane Edwards, a 'spinster', married, with Free Church of England rites, John Makin, a drayman for a brewery; both were literate. They had five sons and five daughters.

After John suffered an accident, the Makins made a meagre living by taking care of illegitimate babies. Commonly John answered an advertisement, negotiated payment of £3 to £5 and signed 'papers' exonerating the putative father from further responsibility. The mortality rate for babies separated from their mothers was so high that public institutions were reluctant to admit them. Makin, either from fear of destitution or recklessly, accepted babies whom other carers avoided. The family moved frequently, sometimes owing rent.

The Makins came to police attention in October 1892 when workmen uncovered the bodies of two children at 25 Burren Street, Macdonaldtown. John, Sarah and their teenage daughters swore that there had been only one infant in their care while there and it had been returned to its parents. A coronial jury returned open verdicts. But four more bodies were found at Burren Street and police dug in eleven backyards where the Makins had lived since 1890, recovering thirteen bodies in all.

Inquests into the causes of deaths of the infants proceeded in November 1892 in a blaze of publicity. Unable to identify bodies or establish causes of death—there was no evidence of violence or poison—on 28 November a jury returned open verdicts in four cases, but identified one body as that of the illegitimate child of Minnie Davis and Horace Bottamley and recommended a manslaughter charge against the Makins. Exceptionally, Bottamley and Davis had made weekly payments and visited every Saturday night. They were 'quite satisfied' with their baby's treatment. When the child had fallen ill, Makin sent Bottamley a telegram and the baby was taken to a doctor. The parents saw the body beautifully laid out and accepted Makin's offer to arrange burial.

Next month inquests were held into the deaths of four more of the infants, one of whom was Horace Murray, born on 30 May 1892, the illegitimate son of Amber Murray, who advertised for someone to adopt the baby. After Makin accepted £3, his daughter Blanche collected the baby on 27 June, two days before the family departed suddenly for Burren Street. A fellow prisoner testified that John had confided to him that no doctor could find poison but 'they will have me for perjury and illegally burying'. On 21 December a coronial jury returned a verdict of murder in the case of Amber Murray's child.

In March 1893 John and Sarah Makin were tried for the murder of Horace Murray or, if identification failed, of an unknown infant at 109 George Street, Redfern, on 29 June 1892. Neither defendant took the stand. Disregarding testimony of disfiguring sores, the trial judge when addressing the jury spoke of a 'healthy' infant dead within two days. The jury found both defendants guilty of murdering an unknown infant, but recommended mercy for Sarah.

On appeal, defence objection to wrongful admission of the testimony from other mothers (which established the Makins' reputation as 'baby farmers') was dismissed, on the grounds that it was impossible to suppose that such testimony had any influence on the verdict of the jury. An appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council also failed—the committee would not set aside a jury's decision, the jury having had the 'advantage' of seeing and hearing witnesses. The Dibbs government rejected a plea for clemency. John then signed a statement that the body was not Amber Murray's son, claiming that it 'was buried in the yard four to five weeks before we got her child'. John Makin was hanged on 15 August 1893 at Sydney gaol.

Sarah's sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life, which she served at Bathurst and in Sydney. Her daughters petitioned for early release in 1907 and again in 1911. On 29 April that year she was discharged from the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay to the care of her daughter Florence on the grounds of her great age and declining health. She nursed her eldest daughter through a fatal illness, then lived with her son-in-law. 'Mother Makin', as she had been known during her notoriety, died on 13 September 1918 at Marrickville and was buried with Anglican rites in Rookwood cemetery. Three sons and four daughters survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Addison, A Digest of Criminal and Magistrates’ Cases Decided in New South Wales from 1840 to 30 June 1894 (Syd, 1895)
  • C. Herben, From Burren Street to the Gallows (Syd, 1997)
  • Journals (Legislative Council, New South Wales), vol 50, pt 1, p 541
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Nov 1892, p 10, 15 Nov 1892, p 3, 16 Nov 1892, p 3, 29 Nov 1892, p 3, 22 Dec 1892, p 4, 7 Mar 1893, p 3, 10 Mar 1893, p 3, 24 Mar 1893, p 2, 31 Mar 1893, p 3
  • Bulletin, 12 Nov 1892, p 7, 19 Nov 1892, p 4.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Makin, Sarah Jane (1845–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sarah Jane Makin (1845-1918), by unknown photographer, 1890s

Sarah Jane Makin (1845-1918), by unknown photographer, 1890s

Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society, P10\P10162

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Sutcliffe, Sarah
  • Mother Makin

20 December, 1845
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


13 September, 1918 (aged 72)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.