It Is Almost as If There Were a Written Script: Child Murder, Concealment of Birth, and the Unmarried Mother in Western Australia




illegitimate, western australia, infanticide

How to Cite

Gardiner, A. (2014). It Is Almost as If There Were a Written Script: Child Murder, Concealment of Birth, and the Unmarried Mother in Western Australia. M/C Journal, 17(5).
Vol. 17 No. 5 (2014): illegitimate
Published 2014-10-25


All children born before matrimony, or so long after the death of the husband as to render it impossible that the child could be begotten by him, are bastards.
– Cro. Jac. 451

William Toone: The Magistrates Manual, 1817 (66)

On 4 September 1832, the body of a newborn baby boy was found washed up on the shore at the port town of Fremantle, Western Australia. As the result of an inquest into the child’s suspicious death, a 20-year-old, unmarried woman named Mary Summerland was accused of concealing his birth. In October 2014, 25-year-old Irish backpacker Caroline Quinn faced court in Perth, Western Australia, over claims that she concealed the birth of her stillborn child after giving birth in the remote north west town of Halls Creek during May of the same year. Both women denied the existence of their children, both appear to have given birth to their “illegitimate” babies alone, and both women claimed that they did not know that they had ever been pregnant at all. In addition, both women hid the body of their dead child for several days while the people they lived with or were close to, did not appear to notice that the mother of the child had had a baby. In neither case did any person associated with either woman seek to look for the missing child after it had been born.

Despite occurring 182 years apart, the striking similarities between these cases could lead to the assumption that it is almost as if there were a written script of behaviour that would explain the actions of both young women. Close examination of the laws surrounding child murder, infanticide and concealment of birth reveals evidence of similar behaviours being enacted by women as far back as the 1600s (and earlier), and all are shaped in response to the legal frameworks that prosecuted women who gave birth outside of marriage.

This article traces the history of child murder law from its formation in England in the 1600s and explores how early moral assumptions concerning unmarried mothers echoed through the lived experiences of women who killed their illegitimate babies in colonial Western Australia, and continue to resonate in the treatment of, and legal response to, women accused of similar crimes in the present day.

The Unlicensed Child

The unlicensed child is a term coined by Swain and Howe to more accurately define the social matrix faced by single women and their children in Australia. The term seeks to emphasise the repressive and controlling religious, legal and social pressures that acted on Australian women who had children outside marriage until the mid-1970s (xxi, 1, 92, 94). For the purposes of this article, I extend Swain and Howe’s term the unlicensed child to coin the term the unlicensed mother. Following on from Swain and Howe’s definition, if the children of unmarried mothers did not have a license to be born, it is essential to acknowledge that their mothers did not have a license to give birth. Women who had children without social and legal sanction gave birth within a society that did not allocate them “permission” to be mothers, something that the corporeality of pregnancy made it impossible for them not to be. Their own bodies—and the bodies of the babies growing inside them—betrayed them. Unlicensed mothers were punished socially, religiously, legally and financially, and their children were considered sinful and inferior to children who had married parents simply because they had been born (Scheper-Hughes 410). This unspoken lack of authorisation to experience the unavoidably innate physicality of pregnancy, birth and motherhood, in turn implies that, until recently unmarried mothers did not have license to be mothers.

Two Mothers

All that remains of the “case” of Mary Summerland is a file archived at the State Records Office of Western Australia under the title CONS 3472, Item 10: Rex V Mary Summerland. Yet revealed within those sparse documents is a story echoed by the events surrounding Caroline Quinn nearly two hundred years later.

In September 1832, Mary Summerland was an unmarried domestic servant living and working in Fremantle when the body of a baby was found lying on a beach very close to the settlement. Western Australia had only been colonized by the British in 1829. The discovery of the body of an infant in such a tiny village (colonial Fremantle had a population of only 436 women and girls out of 1341 non-Aboriginal emigrants) (Gardiner) set in motion an inquest that resulted in Mary Summerland being investigated over the suspicious death of the child.

The records suggest that Mary may have given birth, apparently alone, over a week prior to the corpse of the baby being discovered, yet no one in Fremantle, including her employer and her family, appeared to have noticed that Mary might have been pregnant, or that she had given birth to a child. When Mary Summerland was eventually accused of giving birth to the baby, she strongly denied that she had ever been pregnant, and denied being the mother of the child.  It is not known how her infant ended up being disposed of in the ocean. It is also not known if Mary was eventually charged with concealment or child murder, but in either scenario, the case against her was dismissed as “no true bill” when she faced her trial. 

The details publically available on the case of Caroline Quinn are also sparse. Even the sex of her child has not been revealed in any of the media coverage of the event. Yet examination of the limited details available on her charge of “concealment of birth” reveal similarities between her behaviours and those of Mary Summerland.

In May 2014 Caroline Quinn had been “travelling with friends in the Kimberly region of Western Australia” (Lee), and, just as Mary did, Caroline claims she “did not realise that she was pregnant” when she went into labour ( She appears, like Mary Summerland, to have given birth alone, and also like Mary, when her child died due to unexplained circumstances she hid the corpse for several days. Also echoing Mary’s story, no person in the sparsely populated Hall’s Creek community (the town has a populace of 1,211) or any friends in Caroline’s circle of acquaintances appears to have noticed her pregnancy, nor did they realise that she had given birth to a baby until the body of the child was discovered hidden in a hotel room several days after her or his birth. The media records are unclear as to whether Caroline revealed her condition to her friends or whether they “discovered” the body without her assistance. The case was not brought to the attention of authorities until Caroline’s friends took her to receive medical attention at the local hospital and staff there notified the police.

Media coverage of the death of Caroline Quinn’s baby suggests her child was stillborn or died soon after birth. As of 13 August 2014 Caroline was granted leave by the Chief Magistrate to return home to Ireland while she awaited her trial, as “without trivialising the matter, nothing more serious was alleged than the concealing of the birth” (Collins, "Irish Woman").

Caroline Quinn was not required to return to Australia to appear at her trial and when the case was presented at the Perth Magistrates Court on Thursday 2 October, all charges against her were dropped as the prosecutor felt “it was not in the public interest” to proceed with legal action (Collins, "Case").

Statutory Marginalisation

To understand the similarities between the behaviours of, and legal and medical response to, Mary Summerland and Caroline Quinn, it is important to situate the deaths of their children within the wider context of child murder, concealment of birth and “bastardy” law. Tracing the development of these methods of law-making clarifies the parallels between much of the child murder, infanticide and concealment of birth narrative that has occurred in Western Australia since non-Aboriginal settlement.

Despite the isolated nature of Western Australia, the nearly 400 years since the law was formed in England, and the extremely remote rural locations where both these women lived and worked, their stories are remarkably alike. It is almost as if there were a written script and each member of the cast knew what role to play:  both Mary and Caroline knew to hide their pregnancies, to deny the overwhelmingly traumatic experience of giving birth alone, and to conceal the corpses of their babies. The fathers of their children appear to have cut off any connection to the women or their child. The family, friends, or employers of the parents of the dead babies knew to pretend that they did not know that the mother was pregnant or who the father was. The police and medical officers knew to charge these women and to collect evidence that could be used to simultaneously meet the needs of the both prosecution and the defence when the cases were brought to trial.

In reference to Mary Summerland’s case, in colonial Western Australia when a woman gave birth to an infant who died under suspicious circumstances, she could be prosecuted with two charges: “child murder” and/or “concealment of birth”. It is suggestive that Mary may have been charged with both. The laws regarding these two offences were focused almost exclusively on the deaths of unlicensed children and were so deeply interconnected they are difficult to untangle.

For Probyn, shame pierces the centre of who we think we are, “what makes it remarkable is that it reveals with precision our values, hopes and aspirations, beyond the generalities of good manners and cultured norms” (x). Dipping into the streams of legal and medical discourse that flow back to the seventeenth century highlights the pervasiveness of discourses marginalising single women and their children. This situates Mary Summerland and Caroline Quinn within a ‘burden on society’ narrative of guilt, blame and shame that has been in circulation for over 500 years, and continues to resonate in the present (Coull).

An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children

In England prior to the 17th century, penalties for extramarital sex, the birth and/or maintenance of unlicensed children or for committing child murder were expressed through church courts (Damme 2-6; Rapaport 548; Butler 61; Hoffer and Hull 3-4). Discussion of how the punishment of child murder left the religious sphere and came to be regulated by secular laws that were focused exclusively on the unlicensed mother points to two main arguments: firstly, the patriarchal response to unlicensed (particularly female) sexuality; and secondly, a moral panic regarding a perceived rise in unlicensed pregnancies in women of the lower classes, and the resulting financial burden placed on local parishes to support unwanted, unlicensed children (Rapaport 532, 48-52; McMahon XVII, 126-29; Osborne 49; Meyer 3-8 of 14). In many respects, as Meyer suggests, “the legal system subtly encouraged neonaticide through its nearly universally negative treatment of bastard children” (240).

The first of these “personal control laws” (Hoffer and Hull 13) was the Old Poor Law created by Henry VIII in 1533, and put in place to regulate all members of English society who needed to rely on the financial assistance of the parish to survive. Prior to 1533, “by custom the children of the rich depended on their relations, while the ‘fatherless poor’ relied on the charity of the monastic institutions and the municipalities” (Teichman 60-61). Its implementation marks the historical point where the state began to take responsibility for maintenance of the poor away from the church by holding communities responsible for “the problem of destitution” (Teichman 60-61; Meyer 243).

The establishment of the poor law system of relief created a hierarchy of poverty in which some poor people, such as those suffering from sickness or those who were old, were seen as worthy of receiving support, while others, who were destitute as a result of “debauchery” or other self-inflicted means were seen as undeserving and sent to a house of correction or common gaol. Underprivileged, unlicensed mothers and their children were seen to be part of the category of recipients unfit for help (Jackson 31).

Burdens on Society

It was in response to the narrative of poor unlicensed women and their children being undeserving fiscal burdens on law abiding, financially stretched community members that in 1576 a law targeted specifically at holding genetic parents responsible for the financial maintenance of unlicensed children entered the secular courts for the first time. Called the Elizabethan Poor Law it was enacted in response to the concerns of local parishes who felt that, due to the expenses exacted by the poor laws, they were being burdened with the care of a greatly increased number of unlicensed children (Jackson 30; Meyer 5-6; Teichman 61).

While the 1576 legislation prosecuted both parents of unlicensed children, McMahon interprets the law as being created in response to a blend of moral and economic forces, undergirded by a deep, collective fear of illegitimacy (McMahon 128). By the 1570s “unwed mothers were routinely whipped and sent to prison” (Meyer 242) and “guardians of the poor” could force unlicensed mothers to wear a “badge” (Teichman 63). Yet surprisingly, while parishes felt that numbers of unlicensed children were increasing, no concomitant rise was actually recorded (McMahon 128).

The most damning evidence of the failure of this law, was the surging incidence of infanticide following its implementation (Rapaport 548-49; Hoffer and Hull 11-13). After 1576 the number of women prosecuted for infanticide increased by 225 percent. Convictions resulting in unlicensed mothers being executed also rose (Meyer 246; Hoffer and Hull 8, 18).

Infanticide Increases

By 1624 the level of infanticide in local communities was deemed to be so great An Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children was created. The Act made child murder a “sex-specific crime”, focused exclusively on the unlicensed mother, who if found guilty of the offence was punished by death. Probyn suggests that  “shame is intimately social” (77) and indeed, the wording of An Act to Prevent highlights the remarkably similar behaviours enacted by single women desperate to avoid the shame and criminal implication linked to the social position of unlicensed mother:

Whereas many lewd Women that have been delivered of Bastard Children, to avoyd their shame and to escape punishment [my italics], doe secretlie bury, or conceale the Death of their Children, and after if the child be found dead the said Women doe alleadge that the said Children were borne dead;…For the preventing therefore of this great Mischiefe…if any Woman…be delivered of any issue of the Body, Male or Female, which being born alive, should by the Lawes of this Realm be a bastard, and that she endeavour privatlie either by drowning or secret burying thereof, or any other way, either by herselfe of the procuring of others, soe to conceale the Death thereof, as that it may not come to light, whether it be borne alive or not, but be concealed, in every such Case the Mother so offending shall suffer Death… (Davies 214; O'Donovan 259; Law Reform Commission of Western Australia 104; Osborne 49; Rose 1-2; Rapaport 548).

An Act to Prevent also “contained an extraordinary provision which was a reversion of the ordinary common law presumption of dead birth” (Davies 214), removing the burden of proof from the prosecution and placing it on the defence (Francus 133; McMahon 128; Meyer 2 of 14). The implication being that if the dead body of a newborn, unlicensed baby was found hidden, it was automatically assumed that the child had been murdered by their mother (Law Reform Commission of Western Australia 104; Osborne 49; Rapaport 549-50; Francus 133). This made the Act unusual in that “the offence involved was the concealment of death rather than the death itself” (O'Donovan 259). The only way an unlicensed mother charged with child murder was able to avoid capital punishment was to produce at least one witness to give evidence that the child was “borne dead” (Law Reform Commission of Western Australia 104; Meyer 238; McMahon 126-27).

Remarkable Similarities

Clearly, the objective of An Act to Prevent was not simply to preserve infant life. It is suggestive that it was enacted in response to women wishing to avoid the legal, social, corporal and religious punishment highlighted by the implementation of the poor law legislation enacted throughout earlier centuries. It is also suggestive that these pressures were so powerful that threat of death if found guilty of killing their neonate baby was not enough to deter women from concealing their unlicensed pregnancies and committing child murder.

Strikingly analogous to the behaviours of Mary Summerland in 19th century colonial Western Australia, and Caroline Quinn in 2014, the self-preservation implicit in the “strategies of secrecy” (Gowing 87) surrounding unlicensed birth and child murder often left the mother of a dead baby as the only witness to her baby’s death (McMahon xvii 49-50).

An Act to Prevent set in motion the legislation that was eventually used to prosecute Mary Summerland in colonial Western Australia (Jackson 7, Davies, 213) and remnants of it still linger in the present where they have been incorporated into the ‘concealment of birth law’ that  prosecuted Caroline Quinn (Legal Online TLA [10.1.182]).

Changing the ‘Script’

Shame runs like a viral code through the centuries to resonate within the legal response to women who committed infanticide in colonial Western Australia. It continues on through the behaviours of, and legal responses to, the story of Caroline Quinn and her child. As Probyn observes, “shame reminds us about the promises we keep to ourselves” in turn revealing our desire for belonging and elements of our deepest fears (p. x). While Caroline may live in a society that no longer outwardly condemns women who give birth outside of marriage, it is fascinating that the suite of behaviours manifested in response to her pregnancy and the birth of her child—by herself, her friends, and the wider community—can be linked to the narratives surrounding the formation of “child murder” and “concealment” law nearly 400 years earlier. Caroline’s narrative also encompasses similar behaviours enacted by Mary Summerland in 1832, in particular that Caroline knew to say that her child was “born dead” and that she had merely concealed her or his body—nothing more. This behaviour appears to have secured the release of both women as although both Mary and Caroline faced criminal investigation, neither was convicted of any crime.

Yet, neither of these women or their small communities were alone in their responses. My research has uncovered 55 cases linked to child murder in Western Australia and the people involved in all of these incidences share unusually similar behaviours (Gardiner). Perhaps, it is only through the wider community becoming aware of the resonance of child murder law echoing through the centuries, that certain women who are pregnant with unwanted children will be able to write a different script for themselves, and their “unlicensed” children.


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