The Edwards Street Baby Farm by Stella Budrikis

‘How did it come to this?’

In 1907, Perth woman Alice Mitchell was arrested for the murder of five-month-old Ethel Booth.  Alice Mitchell, a nurse and midwife, had been registered since 1903 with the Perth Local Board of Health to take charge of infants. Babies were boarded at her premises in Edward Street in East Perth while their mothers worked to support themselves and pay for their children’s care.

‘How could so many infants die in the care of one woman without anyone becoming concerned?’

The case came to light after Mitchell was reported by a constable on duty in the neighbourhood when she casually mentioned during a conversation that she had a child lying ill in her house but could not afford a doctor. The police called Dr Davey to attend a 10-month-old child who was in “an exceedingly emaciated condition”.  While at the house Dr Davey noticed another baby, Ethel Booth, in a similar condition.  Both children were taken to Perth Public Hospital, but little Ethel died the next day.

Ethel Booth was not the only baby to die in Mrs Mitchell’s care.  Corporal O’Halloran  investigated the names and addresses of the parents included on the (incomplete) register Mrs Mitchell was required to keep as well as details from the State Registrar’s office and was able to compile a list of thirty-seven infants who had died in Alice Mitchell’s care between 190l and 1907.  There may have been others.

‘I keep them for a living.  I don’t keep them for the love of the thing.’

But who else was involved?  In this book, Ms Budrikis writes of the social conditions in Perth at the time, of the factors that lead to Mrs Mitchell operating a baby farm, and of Dr Ned Officer and Miss Harriet Lenihan. The case raised questions about how so many infants could die, in apparently squalid conditions.

Dr Officer was the doctor who, apparently, provided regular oversight of the children in Mrs Mitchell’s care.  He also signed many of the children’s death certificates.  Miss Lenihan was the Lady Health Inspector responsible for inspecting the premises where the babies were kept on a regular basis.  Dr Officer emerges from the trial unscathed, while Miss Lenihan is vilified.

And Mrs Mitchell?  The trial concluded on 13 April 1907 and the jury found her guilty of manslaughter and she was sentenced to five years hard labour. The case led to legislative changes to protect the welfare of children.

In her Afterword, Ms Budrikis, while wondering about this case writes:

‘Clearly something went terribly wrong to cause the death of so many babies and young children in one household.  The death rate among the infants in Alice’s care was far higher than the already-high rate amongst other “boarded-out” children.’

I found this a difficult but important book to read.  And I wonder what really happened.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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