The Baby Farmers: The former Wollongong 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 though, none were as notorious as the ‘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 Dapto in 1845 and worked as a clerk at the Wollongong Wharf and later a brewery drayman.

After his marriage to widow, Sarah Jane Sutcliffe in 1871, the newly married couple hosted the Settlers Arms, Wollongong after 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. Makin told the court he had married Sarah Jane Edwards in Woolloomooloo in 1871. He was requested by the Bench to show his marriage certificate, and he did so under protest. The license was 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 John was in the habit of selling liquor illegally and drunken men were seen leaving the pub at all hours on a Sunday. After considering Makin’s application, without hearing Sheridan’s “several respectable witnesses”, the Bench granted Makin’s renewal.

John Makin

John and Sarah Makin left the Royal Alfred in October 1873 and moved to Sydney where they found difficulties earning a steady income.

The former Wollongong publicans began a dreadful and shocking occupation that what would later earn them the title of “baby farmers”.

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

The couple 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 unmarried women who had children.

The money from the dozen or so infants that the Makins eventually cared for helped feed their already large family. John and Sarah’s only other income was from a 1 pound a week inheritance.

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

The two had murdered at least 13 adopted babies and consequently 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 shocked streets of Wollongong that he knew there was something suspicious about those hosts of the Royal Alfred.

For more on John and Sarah Makin visit Wikipedia.

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Categories: Illawarra Hotels, NSW hotels, Publicans

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