The Case of Frances Knorr (neé Thwaites)

Women who chose not to risk an abortion and who gave birth to illegitimate babies faced a precarious future. Few could survive without family assistance. This was a time when poor women with children, who needed to work, had very few options. There were homes that were registered and licensed to provide care for infants and children, but they had limited capacity and were very expensive, well beyond the means of a woman who was a single wage earner. Even ad hoc care could be too expensive for a woman with an intermittent income, as the other notorious case of this decade, that of Emma Williams, made clear. Williams drowned her two-year-old son in the river at Port Melbourne in 1895, after repeatedly leaving him with different carers while she tried to find work. Another recourse was to ask the state to take charge of an infant. In this case the child was taken to court as a ‘neglected child’, but this was an uncertain path. The state was a reluctant carer of infants as they had few places available.

Single women with infant children to support were in an invidious position. Almost all jobs required women to work long hours and provided no childcare. Even live-in domestic positions were rarely prepared to accept a child. ‘Baby farmers’ offered a solution, albeit a grim one. These were women (or men) who arranged for the care of infants with nurses or in their own homes either for a weekly fee, or for an upfront payment. In the latter case it is fairly clear that the tacit assumption was that the baby would not survive. And many did not. The survival rate for babies who were fed artificially (‘hand-reared’) was already very low at this time, and we can only assume that this allowed the many deaths reported from these houses to pass without suspicion. Commenting on the ‘Traffic in Babies’ in Melbourne in January 1894, the Argus welcomed new regulations requiring an inquest into the death of infants in care:

Central Register of Female Prisoners – Frances Knorr
Courtesy Public Record Office Victoria

Formerly there had been no check of any description on the operations of baby farmers, and unless they committed deliberate murders, by the sharp and easily detected means of suffocation or strangulation, the deaths of the children in their charge were taken but little notice of. A doctor summoned at the last moment certified that death had followed from marasmus [under feeding or poor nourishment] and upon his certificate the burial of the child was permitted without further question except in rare cases where suspicious circumstances were plainly evident. The opportunities afforded under that system, or want of system, for the starvation of children or the accomplishment of their death by unsuitable feeding were many… (Argus, 1 January 1894, p.6)

Other deaths were probably not reported at all and since the births might not have been registered either, there was no official record to show that these infants had ever existed.

One of the most notorious baby farmers was a woman named Frances Knorr, popularly known as the ‘Brunswick baby farmer’. She was convicted of murdering an infant in her charge and was executed in 1894. Knorr may not have been typical of the many baby farmers who were said to operate in Melbourne at this time, but her story probably gives some indication of the way in which this unsavoury trade operated and of the circumstances that prompted other women to make use of it. The full story of Frances Knorr, in so far as we know it, can be found here. But in essence she was a young woman who fell into bad company and turned to baby farming as one means of providing for herself and her children.

Frances was a young woman from a respectable family in England. Her father was a tailor in Chelsea and she received a good education, including music lessons. However in her teens she apparently fell in with a ‘fast’ crowd, and at seventeen eloped with a soldier. He soon abandoned her and she returned to her parents, who immediately packed her off to a reformatory school. When this also failed, they determined to send her to Australia, ‘fearing the effects of her evil example on the younger children.’ In Australia she seems to have gravitated immediately towards a group of petty criminals. She married a thief, Rudy Knorr, or at least claims to have married him, (there seems to have been some doubt about the validity of the marriage,) and they were both convicted of theft on several occasions.  Both served terms of imprisonment in Sydney. There was one child of the marriage, a daughter Gladys, and possibly another child, born in Adelaide. They moved to Melbourne in about 1891. According to evidence gathered by the police and reported in the press (although not included in Knorr’s official case file) the Knorrs also carried on a business as baby farmers. During one of Rudi’s terms of imprisonment, it seems that Frances continued the business with another partner, a fish-monger’s assistant named Edward Thompson. Thompson was probably the father of a child born to Frances just a few days before her arrest.

Precisely how their business worked was never proved directly, but the evidence of various witnesses suggested that ‘arrangements’ were made with mothers seeking care for their infants, with payment to be made on either a weekly basis, or as a lump sum upfront. The baby farmers then placed the baby with a nurse, usually in response to an advertisement. It seems that the system often operated as a form of scam. The nurses, usually poor women themselves, accepted care of an infant on the promise of a weekly payment. The first payments were received, but then the payments stopped and the nurse was left with the child. In some circumstances it seems these women continued to care for the children, out of a sense of moral obligation: others surrendered the babies to the police, who had no option but to place them in state care. However it seems clear that in some instances the babies were not placed with a nurse at all, but remained with Frances. This is what happened to three infants whose bodies were later found. (Argus, 28 July 1893, p. 6 & 1 January 1894, p.6)

Knorr’s activities came to light when the body of an infant was discovered buried in the back yard of a house she had rented. No obvious cause of death could be identified. However police immediately investigated the back yards of other houses previously rented by Knorr and found the bodies of two other babies. Although these infants were never identified, (their mothers never came forward,) it was clear that they had been murdered: one had been suffocated while the second had been strangled. Knorr was immediately charged with the murder of the infant discovered in the yard of the house in Moreland Road Brunswick. She was convicted and executed on 15 January 1894. Although she maintained throughout her trial that this child had died of convulsions, Knorr confessed on the eve of her execution to her murder and to the murder of one of the other infants. She also identified the child in Moreland Road as Gladys Crighton, who was a few weeks old when she died.

At her trial the prosecution painted a detailed picture of Knorr as a ‘broker of babies’.

What she did was hire out babies, in some instances to pay for them for a time, and then cease to pay, and in other instances to take them back, while in some cases it is not known what became of them. …if she could not pay to get rid of the child she had a strong temptation upon her… to get rid of the children by some other means. (Knorr, Capital Case file, trial transcript)

One quasi-legal ‘agreement’ with one mother was tendered as evidence:

This is to certify that I, Mary Lynch, agree to give Lily Lynch to Frances T. Thwaites, to take as her own and adopt her as her own child, without premium. The sum of £5 is for outfit.


I hereby promise that I will not trouble Mary Lynch any more financially.

Receiving £5 sterling as above.



Mary Lynch testified that she subsequently had doubts about Frances and took her child back. Her actions suggest that not all such transactions were sinister in intent. In the absence of a formal system for adopting children, the baby farmer often represented the only source for childless couples wishing to adopt. Adoption may well have been Mary Lynch’s motive in passing her baby to Frances Knorr, though whether this was what Frances had in mind seems unlikely.

The evidence of other witnesses suggested that Knorr approached the disposal of infants quite systematically. A neighbour who had accompanied her one day, told the court that she had gone with Knorr to Brunswick, where Frances had commented on the many unoccupied houses for rent. This was the height of the 1890s depression which had affected Brunswick particularly badly. She subsequently arranged to ‘rent’ one such house but returned the keys after only one week. A man who lived next door to the house in Brunswick also gave evidence that Knorr had sent a child to him asking to borrow a spade, ostensibly to dig a garden, but returned it saying the ground was too hard. A subsequent tenant found the child’s body when he decided to create a garden and dug up the back yard. (Case file and reported in Age, 28 November 1893, p.6)

Knorr’s trial was preceded by extensive press coverage of the police enquiries and of the evidence presented to the coroner’s inquests, which suggested that a steady stream of infants passed through the Knorrs’ hands. We would now conclude that there was little prospect of her receiving a ‘fair’ trial. Certainly public opinion ran high against her and there was widespread revulsion as the details of the trade in babies was revealed. However the evidence against her was always circumstantial. No cause of death was ever established for the child found in Moreland Road and Knorr was not charged with the murder of the other two infants, although the Judge did admit as evidence the information that they had died of suffocation in one instance and strangulation in the other. At trial Frances implied that Thompson had disposed of one of these infants while she was out, (Age, 29 November 1893, p.6 & 1 December 1893, p.7,) but by then she was thoroughly discredited as a witness, since she had foolishly written to Thompson from prison, asking him to fabricate evidence on her behalf. He immediately turned the letter over to the police, possibly in exchange for evading prosecution, although that is pure speculation. Rudi Knorr was also due to stand trial in the case after Frances, but this never eventuated, perhaps in the light of her confession. It is possible she hoped that by confessing to the crimes and clearing these men, one or other of them would look after her two children.

The trial of Frances Knorr certainly focussed public opinion on an aspect of life in Melbourne that many found shocking, and it helped to stiffen the resolve of government to enforce the new regulations requiring all homes providing infant care to be inspected. But it is unlikely that the overburdened police force was able to suppress the trade entirely. There were simply too many informal arrangements in place. Government also remained trenchantly opposed to funding the creation of a foundling hospital (as advocated by Miss Sullivan amongst others) or adopting the supervised boarding out system followed in South Australia. Moralists insisted that such safety nets only encouraged immorality. And so the trade in human misery almost certainly continued. In January 1894 the Argus sought Miss Sutherland’s views on the need for state assistance. Miss Selina Sutherland was a prominent advocate for single women and their children. She was highly respected and was often approached by the police or the courts to admit girls arrested on the streets to the home she ran in the city. Her response was unequivocal:

The present system leads to murder and to degradation; and the evil that is being wrought is increasing rapidly. If infant life is considered worth saving and the degradation of women and the crime of murder are not desired by the people, then steps should at once be taken to establish a foundling hospital. (p. 6.)

Sadly, her pleas fell on deaf ears. A system of legal adoption was not introduced in Victoria until 1929.

Selina Murray McDonald Sutherland, c.1879
Iorns, Bennett, 1883-1977: Photographs relating to Masterton and the Wairarapa
Ref: 1/2-089106-F
Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

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