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How a suburb disappears

Uncover the grisly truth behind Macdonaldtown station

If you’ve ever taken the T2 line, your train may have stopped at a real blip of a station. Nestled halfway between Redfern and Newtown stations lies Macdonaldtown—one of Sydney’s smallest and strangest train stations. Unlike the majority of Sydney’s stations, Macdonaldtown doesn’t belong to a suburb, and hasn’t for years. In fact, Macdonaldtown, the suburb, hasn’t existed for over a century. Sometimes, suburbs just disappear. But Macdonaldtown didn’t ‘just disappear’—and its tiny station remains, the last relic of a slice of Sydney with a truly gruesome past.

Colonial Sydney was an unforgiving place where the desperate preyed on the vulnerable. ‘Baby farming’ was a practice emblematic of the cruelty of the era: single mothers who couldn’t raise their child due to social stigma or financial woes would pay ‘baby farmers’ to take custody of their children. These children often fared very poorly indeed. Macdonaldtown’s John and Sarah Makin were baby farmers. After an accident left John unable to work, the couple turned to baby farming to make ends meet. They sometimes cared for more than six infants at a time, generating steady income.

But the sad truth of baby farming is that it was far more profitable for a baby farmer for a child in their care to die. The payment taken for accepting a child was not enough to profitably raise them in the long term. The Makins were unscrupulous, accepting dozens of children in order to cash in— moving around the Inner West to dodge rent and mothers wishing to visit their children in the Makin’s care. After a midnight run, their Macdonaldtown landlords decided to cut their losses, renovate the Makin’s old property and rent it out again.

But the renovations uncovered something horrific. While investigating a pipe blockage, a plumber found the clothes and remains of two babies, blocking the drain. The police were called, and a total of 12 bodies were discovered buried in the Makin’s yard—all infants. The Makins were arrested: their trial was one of the most scandalous and sensational in Australia’s short history. Sarah escaped with gaol time but John was sentenced to death. The Macdonaldtown baby killers irreparably stained the reputation of the quiet inner-city suburb where they committed their gruesome crimes. For years before the murders, residents had advocated for the suburb’s name to be changed to Erskineville, after a beloved local reverend. The Makins sealed Macdonaldtown’s fate. The only remnant of the preFederation suburb that remains is the train station.

The Sydney of today, a cosmopolitan world-city with skyscrapers and Neighbourhood Watch chapters, used to be a vicious place. Much of Sydney has a dark past. The boutiques, pubs and tourists that fill The Rocks today are a different world to The Rocks of the Great Depression, defined by the desperation of the Hungry Mile, where workers would would walk from wharf to wharf trying to find a job. The Rocks Push, a colonial-era gang, viciously reigned over the suburb in its early days. Before the 2000 Olympics, Homebush Bay was one of the most polluted areas in the country—home to abattoirs, chemical plants and brick-pits. The ground was so contaminated with heavy metals that it was said that it would take hundreds of years before it could sustain life again. You couldn’t use a mobile phone in some areas because there was a real fear buried bombs left over from old munitions factories could be set off. The clean-up and transformation of the area was a conservational miracle—you’d never know how bad Homebush used to be if you’ve only ever experienced its stadiums and bike-paths.

Real estate agents have tried (and failed) multiple times to resurrect the Macdonaldtown name, and some locals still refer to that little patch of Newtown and Erskineville around this tiny, orphaned station colloquially as Macdonaldtown. But the name’s never stuck—who wants to live where baby killers once did?