Despite society’s somewhat conservative, moral opinions relating to sexual behaviour in the 19th century, sexual intercourse outside of marriage was prevalent and commonplace. As a result of these dalliances, pregnancy and illegitimate births were problematic for young women and inevitably, the majority of cases relating to infant death, involved female defendants. Often the name of the reputed father was never mentioned and for many illegitimate children, they never knew who their fathers were. Domestic service was primarily the only option for most women from an early age, often away from family or any kind of parental supervision.[i] A lack of contraception, broken promises of marriage, along with gender and class inequality,[ii] unsurprisingly led to many unplanned pregnancies. Fear, shame and the inability to care for a newborn were often the motivation for infanticide. With few employment opportunities, for many girls and women, being publicly scorned, losing their jobs and having no money at a time when governmental assistance was non-existent, was not an option. Therefore it was not unusual for a single, pregnant woman to conceal the birth, work until delivery, birth in secret and then dispose of the newborn.[iii]
Infanticide was perceived as a ‘moral crime’ that was ensconced in degradation that could erode the very foundations of a developing society. The crime itself seemed to be more concerned with the integrity of the mother rather than the death of the child.[iv] By investigating the life of Isabella Rowland, it is clear how her integrity and character played an important role in the outcome of her trial where she was charged with ‘murdering her male infant’.[v]
Isabella Rowland, the youngest child of Charles Rowland and Louisa Moss, was born in Wollongong around 1853. Isabella’s mother died in 1856.[vi] It is hard to say whether this event was the start of her father’s drinking habits, or if it only exacerbated it. He was often drunk, was arrested multiple times for drunkenness,[vii] and later served three months in Darlinghurst Gaol for vagrancy[viii]. Charles died in 1859[ix] as a result of injuries received after falling into an open fire whilst intoxicated.[x] It is not known what Isabella’s life was like as a child, or who looked after her and her six siblings after the death of her parents, but the report of her trial shows she had a relationship with her aunt, Rebecca Nichols.[xi] Like most girls, Isabella went into service and worked for various local families such as John Wilson and William Weir of Gerringong, Charles Cameron of Kiama and Captain Charles, MP, of Kiama.[xii] Around May 1877, she started working for Andrew Lysaght and his wife Johanna, as a cook, at the Queen’s Hotel in Wollongong. However prior to this new working arrangement with the Lysaghts, Isabella had fallen pregnant.
The Illawarra Mercury gave a detailed description of Isabella’s ordeal with a Coroner’s report and witness statements. It relays how Isabella Rowland had been detained at Wollongong Gaol as a result of ‘causing the death of a newly-born male child’ in the Queen’s Hotel. Her case was adjourned for five days as Isabella was in poor health and the court deemed she needed time to recover.[i] The testimony supplied by witnesses and the response from Isabella, reinforces how societal opinion greatly influenced the decisions that single women faced regarding the concealment of unplanned pregnancies. Isabella had not told her workmates that she was pregnant, although reports suggest some may have guessed. However Isabella’s confinement had not been a secret from her Aunt Rebecca. She had told her in June that she was ‘in the family way’ and she intended to take the steamer to Sydney to purchase baby clothes, as soon as she had earned enough money at the Queen’s Hotel.[ii] She had stayed on to help the Lysaghts as they were short staffed and it seemed the arduous tasks she completed on the 4 July 1877 brought on premature labour.
Isabella went to her room earlier than usual, around 6pm according to witnesses, where she laboured alone and gave birth to a boy. It is alleged she then wrapped her son, who was deceased, and lay in bed with him. Elizabeth Keirnan who worked and shared a room with Isabella, went to bed between 9 and 10 o’clock but stated she didn’t notice anything suspicious. She did note however that Isabella was awake when she came into the room but they did not speak. Delia Keirnan who also shared the room with the two women, retired to bed around 10pm. She noticed dark stains on the floor and asked Isabella what had happened but Isabella’s reply was “Oh, nothing”. The three women shared the bed but neither of the Keirnan sisters made mention of any child. Later they would testify they did not hear the cry of a newborn, however Delia was suspicious that Isabella had given birth, due to the marks on the floor.[iii]
The next morning Isabella got out of bed, dressed and put the wrapped baby inside a box where she kept her belongings. She went downstairs and returned with a bucket of water and started to scrub the bloodstains from the floor. When Isabella left the room, Delia, who had been watching her, grabbed the key that Isabella had placed in her bag, unlocked the box, and found the ‘cold’ body of the infant.[iv] Shocked by her discovery, Delia informed Mr Lysaght and the police were called to the hotel.
Senior Sergeant Ford arrived at the Queen’s where he began his questioning of Isabella. At first she denied having been ‘confined’ but examination by Dr William Lyons and the subsequent finding of the infant’s body, caused Isabella’s arrest for ‘murdering her male infant’. Isabella was taken to Wollongong Gaol where she was incarcerated on the 9th July 1877 to await trial. The Lysaghts paid her bail on the 16 July. It was a considerable sum for the time, eighty pounds for Isabella and two sureties of forty pounds each.[v] The Lysaghts allowed her to stay at their hotel and offered her employment if she wanted it. They also espoused her good conduct and character later in court.
The Coroner’s Inquest was published in the Illawarra Mercury on Friday 13 July 1877[vi] but Isabella did not go to trial until November that same year. The Inquest took place at the Brighton Hotel, before the District Coroner, E. F Smith and a jury of twelve men. Lawyers Woodward and Owen appeared on Isabella’s behalf. Sergeant Ford was called upon the give his testimony and he relayed how he had been called to the Queen’s Hotel, to talk with a girl named Isabella Rowland, about her pregnancy. He stated she denied the fact but was told she was to be examined by Doctor Lyons, who confirmed her pregnancy and found the body of the child. (Subsequently, the body was shown to the jurors at the time of the Inquest) Isabella told the doctor “I cannot help it; I am quite resigned” and it would seem the opinion of Lyons, in relation to Isabella’s ‘delicate state of health’, stopped her being immediately charged. Lyons stated the body was that of a ‘full-grown male infant’, recently born, unwashed, with the umbilical cord still attached to the placenta and had no visible signs of external trauma. Lyons post mortem examination of the baby noted that although there was ‘effused blood under the scalp’, there was no sign of fractured bone or injury to the skull. He performed a hydrostatic test, although somewhat controversial at the time, to ascertain whether the lungs had aerated at birth. He stated other vital organs were normal but the large intestines were ‘filled with meconium and the bladder was distended with urine’. He concluded that he could not ascertain with certainty that the child had been born alive. The Keirnan sisters, Mr Lysaght and Isabella’s aunt, Rebecca Nichols all gave testimony as well.[vii]
The trial commenced on 6 Nov 1877 and much of the same evidence was used. Delia Keirnan relayed again how she did not notice anything unusual, other than Isabella’s early retirement to bed and reiterated how she found the body. Mr Lysaght again disclosed how he paid her bail and let her live at the hotel, along with explaining how much he and his wife had appreciated how hard Isabella had worked for them in their time of need. Rebecca Nicholls restated that she knew of the pregnancy and Isabella’s plans to take the steamer to Sydney for baby clothes. The Judge summed up the case, by reinforcing societal opinion of the time, that some men were ‘villains’ who seduced and took advantage of modest and ‘well conducted girls’. Reinforcing Isabella’s moral fortitude in relation to such an unfortunate event. As a result, Isabella was found guilty of concealment of birth and not guilty of murdering her infant son. She was sent back to Wollongong Gaol for a second time to serve a sentence of one week.[viii]
Isabella stayed in the area and married William Allen in 1880.[ix] They went on to have four children together before William died in Albion Park in 1896.[x] Isabella remarried Robert Young Arthur in 1905[xi] and the couple moved to Queensland. Isabella died on the 21st January 1946[xii] in Southport, Casino. She was 93 years old.
[i] The Illawarra Mercury, 11 July 1877, p.3.
[ii] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 June 1859, p.2.
[iii] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 June 1859, p.2.
[iv] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 Nov. 1877, p.2.
[v] The Illawarra Mercury, 17 July 1877, p.2.
[vi] The Illawarra Mercury, 13 July 1877, p 2.
[vii] The Illawarra Mercury, 13 July 1877, p.2.
[viii] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 Nov. 1877, p. 2.
[ix] NSWBDM, Marriage, 2058/1880.
[x] NSWBDM, Death, 12648/1896
[xi] NSWBDM, Marriage, 9801/1905.
[xii] QLDBDM, Death, 1946/ B5053.
[i] Gregory Durston, ‘Eighteenth Century Infanticide; A Metropolitan Perspective’. Griffith Law Review, vol. 13, no. 2(2004), pp. 160-61.
[ii] ibid, p.162.
[iii] ibid, p.165.
[iv] Anne-Marie Kilday. History of Infanticide in Britain, c.1600 to the Present, 2013. Palgrave Macmillan.
[v] SRNSW: Entrance books Wollongong Gaol (1866-1898), NRS2590, (5/1628-29), SR Reel 2378.
[vi] NSWBDM Death, 2261/1856
[vii] The Illawarra Mercury, Mon 9 Mar. 1857, p.3
[viii] SRNSW: Entrance Books Darlinghurst Gaol (1850-1914), NRS2134, (5/1891-941).
[ix] NSWBDM 3467/1859 Surname spelt Roland.
[x] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 June 1859, p.2.
[xi] Rebecca was Louisa’s sister.
[xii] The Illawarra Mercury, 6 Nov. 1877, p.2.