Baby Farmers: Former publicans who murdered a dozen babies


The Royal Hotel (far left), Wollongong, in the 1870s when the Makins were host.
The Royal Alfred Hotel (left), Wollongong, in the 1870s when the Makins were host.Picture: Wollongong City Libraries.
Sarah Makin

THE 19th century produced many notorious publicans. Arguably none though were as notorious as ‘baby farmers’, John and Sarah Makin, one time hosts of Wollongong’s Royal Alfred Hotel.

John and Sarah Jane Makin were convicted in 1893 for the murder of infant Horace Murray. Both were tried and found guilty, and were sentenced to death.

John was hanged on August 15 1893 but Sarah’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The respected Makin family had been involved in the hotel industry in the Illawarra region of NSW from the 1850s, and John would eventually also enter the trade.

John and Sarah Makin married in Sydney in 1871 and later moved into his uncle’s pub, the Settlers Arms in the seaside-township of Wollongong.

John was born in nearby Dapto in 1845 and later worked as a clerk at the Wollongong Wharf, before becoming a brewery drayman.

After his marriage to widow, Sarah Jane Sutcliffe in 1871, the couple hosted the Settlers Arms, when John gained its license on July 9, 1872.

The Settlers Arms was a typical country pub on the north-east corner of Crown and Keira Streets Wollongong. It continued operating – in updated premises and under various names – until its eventual demolition in the 1970s to make way for a shopping mall.

Senior Sergeant Sheridan had some reservations about John Makin and opposed the license application, challenging the fact that he was a married man – a favoured requirement for holders of a publican’s license at the time.

Makin told the court he had married Sarah Jane in Woolloomooloo in 1871. He was requested by the Bench to show his marriage certificate, and he did so under protest. The license was in turn granted.

John Makin changed the name of the hotel from the Settlers Arms to the Royal Alfred Hotel and during his occupancy Sergeant Sheridan claimed the pub was conducted improperly and was disorderly.

Sheridan again opposed the Makins’ renewal application in 1873 saying that the publican was in the habit of selling liquor illegally and drunken men were seen leaving the pub at all hours on a Sunday when the hotel was required to be closed for business. After considering Makin’s application, without hearing Sheridan’s “several respectable witnesses”, the Bench granted Makin’s renewal. It seems the Makins had some sway in the close-knit community.

John Makin

Likely due to the sustained scrutiny of Sergeant Sheridan, John and Sarah Makin eventually left the Royal Alfred in October 1873 and moved to Sydney where they found difficulties earning a steady income.

It was while in Sydney the former Wollongong publicans began a dreadful and macabre occupation that what would earn them the title of “the baby farmers”.

This awful crime would shock Australia, and brought horror and embarrassment to the well-respected Makin family in the Illawarra.

The couple reportedly turned to baby farming – the practice of caring for illegitimate babies in exchange for payment – as a source of income, after John was injured in an accident

The pair cared for babies from unmarried mothers for either a one up fee or a small weekly payment. This was nothing unusual during these days when society ostracized women who had children out of wedlock.

The money from the dozen or so infants that the Makins cared for helped feed their already large family. John and Sarah’s only other income was from a one pound a week inheritance.

The hidden reality of the Makin’s gruesome life was discovered at their home in Burren Street, Macdonaldtown (near Newtown), in 1893 when two plumbers came across the buried remains of babies.

The two had murdered at least 13 ‘adopted’ babies and consequently were convicted of murder.

John Makin was sentenced to death and hanged in Darlinghurst Gaol on August 15, 1893. His wife, Sarah, was also sentenced to death, but later this was commuted to life imprisonment. She was released from gaol on parole after 18 years.

On September 13, 1918, Sarah Makin died in Marrickville; she was buried in Rookwood Cemetery.

Senior Sergeant Sheridan’s assumptions of Makin’s character were vindicated and, no doubt, he was heard to say around the stunned streets of Wollongong that he knew there was something suspicious about those hosts of the Royal Alfred.

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