A￼s waves broke on the shore, a suitcase washed up in the shallows of Sydney Harbour’s Athol Beach.
Eunice Clare, 12, who was attending a church picnic, picked it up to investigate. Inside was an object wrapped in a towel, secured with a piece of string.Suddenly, Eunice stumbled back in fright as a baby’s body came loose from the wrappings.
It was November 17, 1923 and the baby girl was just a few weeks old. When police arrived, it was the beginning of the highest-profile child murder case in Sydney’s history. Discovering a muslin handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, officers noticed a mark on the back – 2/14. It was a commercial laundry code.
After visiting one of the city’s biggest laundries, a constable had the name and address of a woman with the customer number 2/14. Jean Olliver was a flapper living at the Square and Compass Hotel. ‘I have a friend with a baby and I gave her some handkerchiefs, but I know she did not kill her baby,’ she blurted to the officers. After taking her down to the station for questioning, they had another address.
This time for a farm more than two hours away, owned by Joseph Shorrock. Inside they found Sarah Boyd.‘I want to tell the truth,’ she said.
‘And you should,’ urged Sergeant Don Alchin. ‘I strangled it,’ Sarah said. As she confessed, Alchin’s stomach turned. ‘I then rolled it in a towel and put it in a grip [suitcase] and my friend Jean and I got a tram to Circular Quay,’ Sarah continued. ‘It was dark and I dropped the suitcase into the harbour.’
While she was charged with murder, her three-year-old son, Jimmie, was taken into care. After Sarah had given her statement, Sergeant Alchin asked her, ‘Why did you do it?’ ‘I didn’t get any word from its father,’ Sarah said. ‘I have written him a couple of letters and he has not replied.’
Born in Scotland, when she fell pregnant with Jimmie out of wedlock, Sarah travelled as far away as possible to NZ, to shield her family from the shame.There, she reinvented herself as a widow and found work sewing. When she met Jean, the two couldn’t have been more different.
While Jean was confident and enjoyed a drink, Sarah was gentle and quietly-spoken. But the loyalty between the women was unshakable. ‘I loved her immensely,’ Jean said of Sarah. Soon Sarah met Edward Jackson, a ship’s captain. When he severed all contact and returned to sea, Sarah was left carrying an illegitimate child once again. She travelled to Australia, and just two weeks later, Jean joined her in Sydney.
One day, Joseph Shorrock started chatting to them in the lounge room of the hotel. With little chance of getting work with a toddler and a newborn, Sarah went to work as a maid at Joseph’s farm in return for board. ‘She seemed to be worrying and downhearted – particularly after the birth,’ Joseph recalled.
‘Several times I walked in unexpected and found her crying.’ Sarah continued to write to the baby’s father, pleading for his support. ‘I found she was destitute... she had no work to go to,’ Joseph said. They decided Sarah would go to Sydney for two weeks to make necessary arrangements for her baby girl to go into a home. Instead, she was found washed up on the beach.
On December 20, 1923, the trial began at Darlinghurst Courthouse. Sarah Boyd, 39, was charged with murder and Jean Olliver, 33, with being an accessory. It took the jury of 12 men just 90 minutes to find both the women guilty. Justice Gordon ordered Jean to be locked up for 12 months. Sarah was sentenced to death by hanging.
As her lawyers prepared an appeal, newspapers were saturated with stories of the woman on death row. Would the state make a vulnerable woman suffer further? journalists asked.
With an election looming, the NSW government acted quickly, reducing her death sentence to life in prison. Joseph pleaded with the authorities to adopt Jimmie, but they said no and the boy remained in care. One woman, Annie Lee, began to build a campaign, Save Sarah, claiming she had received an unfair trial. She’d been vulnerable, desperate, deserted by a scoundrel…
Hundreds of women sympathised with her hardship and the campaign snowballed. ‘We as mothers understand better than men could,’ one lady said. ‘Sarah Boyd has suffered enough.’
Then a letter arrived at Annie Lee’s home. If funds could be raised for her passage home to Scotland, the state of NSW would release her forthwith. Soon, fifty-five pounds and 10 shillings had been donated for Sarah and Jimmie’s tickets home.
On September 2, 1927, they boarded a ship to Scotland. After four years in prison, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like for Sarah and her boy. Sitting in a cabin, sailing towards a homeland that Jimmie had never seen, he was seated beside a woman he hardly knew. Though they were mother and son, they remained little more than strangers.
This story is taken from The Suitcase Baby, by Tanya Bretherton, published by Hachette Australia, RRP $32.99, on sale now.
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