How dark world of 'baby farming' was exposed in sensational trial that brought lasting change


For several weeks in 1907, the Australian public was gripped by a sensational trial in Perth that exposed the dark practice of baby farming.

While it was a trial over the death of one infant, proceedings revealed that 37 babies had died in the care of one woman, Alice Mitchell, over a six-year period, leading to headlines suggesting she might be Australia's worst serial killer.

This extraordinary, but now largely forgotten, case is explored in the book The Edward Street Baby Farm by Perth author Stella Budrikis, who stumbled upon the term while researching another book.

'Baby farming' for profit

"I'd never heard of baby farming until I was writing a book about my great-great-grandmother who became a single mother in Adelaide in the 1860s," Dr Budrikis told Geoff Hutchison on ABC Radio Perth.

"She married a soldier and went back to England and left the child behind, so I was trying to find out what happened to the children of single mothers."

A middle-aged woman with short blonde hair looks at the camera
Author Stella Budrikis, who is also a GP, has delved into the history of 'baby farms' for her latest book.(ABC Radio Perth: Akash Fotedar)

Searching through court records, state archives and newspaper reports from the time, Dr Budrikis discovered the practice of baby farming — private, for-profit foster care arrangements, some of which benefitted children while others did not.

"It was pretty much a foster care arrangement, until perhaps the mother or the parents could take them [back] or they went into an orphanage," she said.

"There were several women in Perth licensed to take in babies and they weren't baby farmers because, although they were paid to take in the children, they looked after them well.

Homes for 'fallen' women

The case that brought down Alice Mitchell began with a young, single woman named Elizabeth Booth, who gave birth to a daughter, Ethel, at the House of Mercy, a home for so-called fallen women in Highgate in inner Perth in 1906.

"Elizabeth Booth took Ethel to Alice Mitchell at the age of three months when she had to leave the fallen women's home," Dr Budrikis said.

"It seems like Mitchell probably had three or four children at a time and the mothers would pay about 10 shillings a week which, when you consider that a serving girl like Elizabeth Booth earned 15 shillings a week, was quite a large proportion of her income."

A black-and-white photo of a tram at a bustling city intersection, with streets lined with shops
Perth in the early 1900s during the Mitchell trial.(Supplied: State Library Of Western Australia)

Booth continued to pay for her daughter's care, but in the following months encountered difficulties every time she tried to see her baby.

"Alice Mitchell always made excuses that the baby was asleep or she was doing a delivery, because she also did midwifery, and so by the time Elizabeth did see her at the beginning of February 1907, the baby was extremely unwell," Dr Budrikis said.

Police target Alice Mitchell

Ethel was under the care of children's specialist Ned Officer, who by 1907 had written death certificates for 25 of the babies cared for by Mitchell without raising any alarm.

The reason Ethel's death resulted in criminal charges was because police had already begun to investigate Mitchell and had visited her house, where they found several emaciated babies and ordered they be taken to hospital.

When Ethel died a week after being taken to hospital, aged seven months, an inquest was ordered.

A 1906 street scape showing a large building to the left and a cathedral at the end of the street
Perth Public Hospital on Murray Street, 1906, where Ethel Booth was taken before her death.(Supplied: State Library Of Western Australia)

"In those days, they had to have an inquest before a murder trial and that was when all the information came out about the number of babies who Alice Mitchell had had in the previous six years and how many of them had died," Dr Budrikis said.

Trial that horrified a nation

The resulting trial, reported in newspapers across the country, was a sensation as it laid bare the dark world of baby farming and the plight of the children's single mothers, who had no alternative way of caring for their babies.

An old newspaper clipping
A report in The Sun, a Kalgoorlie newspaper, of Alice Mitchell's trial published on April 14, 1907.(Supplied: Trove)

Dr Budrikis said while the death rate was high among children in Western Australia at the time — one in six died before their fifth birthday — the public was shocked to learn the deaths of 37 babies had gone unnoticed.

"I think each individual death was probably sort of overlooked because the babies were going to a number of different undertakers, so the undertakers didn't realise how many were dying," she said.

"[Mitchell] couldn't be tried for those because they'd all been handed over to the undertakers and buried. The coroner had never been notified and so there was no way of knowing what the reason was."

In the trial over Ethel Booth's death, Mitchell was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to five years' imprisonment.

The doctor who had failed to raise the alarm continued his career.

"He got a rap on the knuckles from the judge for not having said anything, but then he went back to his practice, became the vice president of the British Medical Association in WA within six months and went from strength to strength."

East Perth Cemeteries are now surrounded by new houses, November 30, 2015.
East Perth historic cemeteries, where some of the babies cared for by Alice Mitchell are buried.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Better protection for children

The trial, however, prompted greater regulation of child care in the state.

There was a public meeting almost as soon as the trial was completed and, although that did not come to any firm conclusions, the government had set in train new legislation for child protection in WA.

While it would be decades before the stigma of unmarried motherhood disappeared, Dr Budrikis said the case focused attention on the plight of single mothers.

"It did have an influence on people's attitudes because, during the trial, they were reading these women's accounts of what had happened to them, which people hadn't thought about before," she said.

The Edward Street Baby Farm is published by Fremantle Press. 

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