All that remains of the former suburb is a train station. Picture: John Grainger
All that remains of the former suburb is a train station. Picture: John Grainger

The myth behind phantom suburb

A deeply disturbing legacy of murdered babies and gruesome discoveries has hung over the former inner west Sydney suburb of Macdonaldtown for more than 125 years.

The names of the notorious and murderous baby farmers John and Sarah Makin have jumped out at any Sydneysider curious enough to look into why the suburb no longer exists.

All that remains of its legacy is a small train station which is now frequented by hipsters looking for a quicker journey in and out of the north side of Newtown's bustling King Street strip.

But the suburb used to be at the heart of a thriving blue collar community, filled with industrious workers who made everything from candles, soap and boots to baths and cookers.

Dr Lisa Murray, the City of Sydney's City Historian, says we may never know exactly why this hive of early Sydneysiders came to be known as Erskineville on March 27, 1893 - but she has found one compelling new reason and it's the most Sydney thing ever.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Macdonaldtown? Picture: John Grainger
Have you ever wondered what happened to Macdonaldtown? Picture: John Grainger

She has dug up evidence which shows the major decision could have been linked to "aspirational" councillors wanting to up the area's house prices - rather than residents wanting to rid the community of the stigma of being associated with the Makin baby farmers.

THE MAKINS' DISTURBING CRIMES

The nefarious couple lived a stone's throw away from the remaining Macdonaldtown Station on Burren Street, where they made money as baby farmers - raising the illegitimate offspring of young Sydney mums for a one-off or weekly fee.

However, in October 1892, not long after the Makins had moved out, workmen digging in the soft earth to clear an underground drain in the home's backyard made a horrific discovery.

Two decomposing baby corpses were found buried and police uncovered four more baby corpses after further investigation.

Police then checked the 11 houses where the couple had moved to in previous years and another 13 baby bodies were found.

The Makins, who had been killing the babies while taking money from desperate single mums, were charged with murder. John was sentenced to death and his wife to prison.

All this happened around the same time the push to have Macdonaldtown's name changed began - leading to the story that the name change was to banish the haunting memories of a crime which left the community in pieces.

Sydney’s notorious baby killers John and Sarah Makin blackened the former suburb’s reputation.
Sydney’s notorious baby killers John and Sarah Makin blackened the former suburb’s reputation.

However, Dr Murray told news.com.au this simply couldn't be true, because she has dived into historical records to discover that the local council had actually approved the name change plans back in April 1892 - six months before the first baby bodies were found.

THE MOST SYDNEY REASON EVER

Looking into the reasons behind the name change, Dr Murray found a potential motive for the bold move - house prices.

Newspaper articles from 1892 show the reason given by Alderman Carter, the Mayor of Macdonaldtown, was that the "times, circumstances, everything had changed, and the importance of the borough necessitated a change of name".

He was supported by Alderman Anderson, who suggested that "changing the name as suggested would increase property value by at least 5 per cent".

Basically they thought Erskineville sounded nicer than Macdonaldtown and, as a result, it would drive property prices up in the tough, working class area. So, they wrote a letter to the state government asking for a bill to change the name.

"Macdonaldtown was a real working class community and that didn't match the aspirations of the councils, who thought times are changing so we're going to change the name," Dr Murray said.

The Municipality of Macdonaldtown was proclaimed in 1872.
The Municipality of Macdonaldtown was proclaimed in 1872.

 

All that remains of the former suburb is a train station.
All that remains of the former suburb is a train station.

"By the 1890s, subdivision in Macdonaldtown and Erskineville had peaked and the present street pattern in the area was largely formed," she said.

"With the opening of Erskineville railway station in the centre of the municipal area, and the building of the town hall nearby shortly afterwards, it was no doubt considered a progressive and sensible option to change the municipality name to Erskineville."

But the move wasn't welcomed by everyone.

Dr Murray also found a tongue-in-cheek response to the name change decision in a local newspaper from a writer who pointed out, at the time, that "95 per cent of the people (in Macdonaldtown) haven't any property to let".

The writer suggested locals rise up against the decision, which could cost them an "extra shilling in rent", by making a petition to change the suburb's name to "Deadman's Gully or Murderer's Flat, or Jackass Point" so they could "get 5 per cent knocked off".

However, the Erskineville Borough Naming Bill had a quick passage through parliament and the whole thing was accomplished on March 27, 1893.

There was even a push to have the name of Macdonaldtown's last remaining remnant - it's train station - changed to North Erskineville several decades later. But the bid was unsuccessful.

HISTORY BEHIND ERSKINEVILLE AND MACDONALDTOWN

Dr Murray said the suburb of Erskineville (formerly Macdonaldtown Municipality) was part of the former Burren Farm Estate, over 200 acres granted to Nicholas Devine in the 1790s. Bernard Rochford was a convict assigned to Devine and he inherited the Burren Farm Estate on Devine's death in 1830.

In 1827, at the age of 67, Rochford had married a wealthy widow, Mary Ann Bacon (nee Burrows); she had four adult children to her first husband Hugh McDonald. Rochford died in 1839.

Dr Lisa Murray has dug up a treasure trove of information on the history of the area.
Dr Lisa Murray has dug up a treasure trove of information on the history of the area.

 

The "McDonald Town" township was subdivided and offered for sale at Pickering's Hotel in Newtown in July 1846 as an opportunity for the "mechanics and industrious classes" to buy freehold land. The McDonald family (Mrs Mary Ann Rochford and her adult children) was the namesake for the subdivision and later the neighbourhood of "Macdonaldtown".

The municipality and suburb name of Erskineville derives from the Reverend George Erskine, an early Wesleyan minister who bought up part of Devine's Estate and built a residence named "Erskine Villa".

Upon Rev Erskine's death, the property was bought by Robert Henderson, followed by William Toogood, a Sydney innkeeper. Toogood left the land to the Church of England and the house was used as a rectory for the Holy Trinity Church, Macdonaldtown.

The Municipality of Macdonaldtown was proclaimed in 1872. Macdonaldtown Railway Station opened in 1878. It was located on the northern boundary of the municipality and took its name from the suburb.

 

An illustration of the Makins’ Macdonaldtown home.
An illustration of the Makins’ Macdonaldtown home.
Sarah Makin was sentenced to life imprisonment. Picture: Historical NSW
Sarah Makin was sentenced to life imprisonment. Picture: Historical NSW


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