Janet Wright: Scottish immigrant, midwife and abortionist 1872 -1932

10 March 2021
Darlinghurst Gaol by H.L. Bertrand, 1891
Dr Noeline Kyle tells the story of Scottish nurse Janet Wright, who emigrated to Australia in 1895 and by 1912, had entered Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney, charged with 'attempt to procure abortion'.

Nurse [1] Janet Wright is one of the women who appeared in the records as I researched the theme The Dark Side of Nursing at the University of Sydney during History Week 2009. [2] Janet also appeared in a Historic Houses trust exhibition titled Femme Fatale: the female criminal held at the Justice & Police Museum, Sydney March 2009 – April 2010. [3]  

Of course, it is true to say, that nurses, midwives and health professionals are more generally lauded for their dedication to their work, their self-sacrifice and in modern history, for their professionalism, competence and fierce defence of their profession. It is rare to find stories of bad behaviour or of serious crimes committed by nurses or midwives when on duty. But nurses and midwives were human and they made mistakes.

The women behind the veil

Throughout history nurses and midwives have displayed all of the human attributes that can be mapped from good through to evil – and the stories of their lives, both at the bedside and at home, are a rich tapestry of caring, competence, and conscientiousness and of course, there is a dark side as well. I was interested in that other side of nurses and midwives; in the human character, the failures and the struggles, the complexity, the women behind the veil, the badges and the fine words. 

Generally nurses, midwives and health professionals have not been imprisoned for serious crime such as murder in Australia. However, this is not to say that some are not charged with a crime. Pamela Jenkins was charged with the murder of a terminally ill patient at Charters Towers, Queensland in 1990 although the charge was dropped due to insufficient evidence. [4] 

John Field could not find any successful murder prosecutions in Australia although he argues this is odd given the many cases of nurses and murder in other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States of America. His thesis did not look at other crimes such as malpractice, mistreatment or negligence which have been made against nurses, matrons and midwives. [5] 

Field did not look at midwives at all in his thesis or he would have found hundreds, indeed thousands, of women like Janet Wright involved in abortion, baby farming and infanticide. One estimate by a Sydney physician in the 1900s suggests that induced abortion ‘accounted for 60% to 85% or so (of) miscarriages that occurred each year.’ [6]

Janet Wright (noted as a nurse) was one of the many women working as a midwife/nurse and as an abortionist in the Surry Hills area of Sydney in the early decades of the twentieth century. She appeared in the public records first in January 1908 alongside Eleanor Brown (noted as a certificated midwife), and  Minnie Knight. However only Eleanor Brown was finally committed for trial and given a sentence of one year light labour at Darlinghurst Gaol. [7]

Sydney in the early 20th century, copyright Tuck DB Postcards

It was October 1912 before Janet appeared in court again, this time charged with an ‘attempt to procure abortion’.  She received three years hard labour in the newly established Reformatory for Women, Long Bay. [8] This was a harsh sentence given that the young woman in question survived the procedure. However, abortion was illegal and did attract tough penalties.  

Court appearances

A search of early newspapers provides some brief references to the court appearances of Janet Wright in 1912 and again in 1928. In one of the 1928 entries she is described as an ‘old-age pensioner’ but there is little else to tell us about the woman standing in the dock at that time. [9]  

A search of the records of the State Archives and Records of New South Wales adds some colour and shape to this woman’s life. Every prisoner as they entered gaol was required by law to be photographed and, where possible, in their own clothing this latter presumably to have a record of how the person looked when  dressed in everyday clothing. [10] 

This can provide an interesting record of fashion although as most of these women were poor and often homeless and sometimes inebriated, the images are also a record of how badly they did dress. Their poverty and distress is reflected in their clothing and their often sad and downcast demeanour.  

In her first photograph, taken in 1912, Janet Wright, is wearing what appear to be stylish clothes, a spotted, knitted top or dress. In the second photograph, taken in 1928, she is dressed in a warm coat, reasonable shoes with heels and a hat, although her appearance is dishevelled perhaps from the activities surrounding her incarceration and court appearance. By 1928 Janet looks considerably older since her court appearance sixteen years earlier in 1912, an indication no doubt  of her difficult life circumstances.

On 3 July 1928 Janet appeared at Sydney Quarter Sessions charged with ‘unlawfully using an instrument with intent to procure a miscarriage’. And was given a sentence of 12 months with light labour. It would appear that she was released early as by December 1928 Janet Wright is again in court for ‘attempting to procure and abortion’ and was given a sentence of three years hard labour in the Reformatory for Women, Long Bay. 

It is the description accompanying the photographs that provides valuable data on the family background and personal history of Janet Wright. She told the officials she was born 17 November 1872 in Scotland and that she had arrived in Australia in 1895 on the Ormurz. She could read and write, was Presbyterian, and had grey hair and blue eyes. She was quite short, only 5 feet (152.4cm), and was of a slight, thin build.

Janet Wright called herself a nurse on this form. It is unlikely that she was trained although she may have had considerable experience working as a midwife and, of course, an abortionist. She was forty years of age as she walked into prison in December 1912. 

Janet Wright had already suffered a major illness, her left breast removed some time before she arrived in New South Wales. That she survived such a serious operation at that time provides some indication of some physical strength and resilience. Nonetheless, that she was now a convicted felon and facing three years hard labour did not bode well for her. 

When Janet Wright walked through the gates of the Women’s Reformatory at Long Bay it had been opened for just two years, Darlinghurst Women’s Gaol and the infamous Biloela had closed. Improved conditions for inmates were supposed to encourage greater reformation this lauded by the the Superintendent Samuel McCauley who believed that the prison was much improved and the ‘reformatory character’ of the gaol worked well  and many of the women left much reformed.[11]

Life in Surry Hills

There is no information on what happened to Janet while she was in prison nor in the decades following her release in 1915. Governments were more concerned with the first World War and times were hard in Sydney. It is likely she went back to her practice of performing abortions. Surry Hills was a popular area for this activity and, in many instances, local doctors called in to help in the aftermath of a botched abortion and local police officers who were involved in dealing with these cases, did not report them further, except when a death occurred or there was an especially difficult or heinous act involved. [12]

Almost all of the cases of manslaughter or murder attributed to midwives and nurses in late 19th and early 20th century New South Wales have abortion, infanticide or baby farming dominating the list. It seemed to be at the whim of the court or of individual judges whether the death of a woman during or shortly after an abortion would be deemed murder or attracted the lesser charge of ‘illegal procuring of a miscarriage.’

The same ambiguity occurred with the death of a baby where the midwife or baby farmer would be charged with murder but the charge would be reduced to the lesser acts such as negligence and/or manslaughter. The previously mentioned Eleanor Brown had appeared three times in court on charges of murder or manslaughter but this did not negatively prejudice her case in 1908. The judge noted her past offences but went on to say ‘the jury had recommended the accused to mercy’ and he as a consequence leaned toward a lighter sentence. [13]

Nurse Blanche Ellen Withey went to prison for fourteen years charged with the manslaughter of Amanda Mendham who died one week after an abortion in a house in Paddington, Sydney. Isabella Widgery received two years hard labour in Darlinghurst for manslaughter in 1901. She called herself a ‘qualified’ nurse and midwife and she went to prison charged with the death of Eva May Short, a young unmarried woman who was too frightened to tell her father that she was pregnant.[14] 

The crimes and incarceration of midwives such as Janet Wright, Blanche Withey and Isabella Widgery can be placed within the gendered social world of women: women who as nurses and midwives were almost always those professionals who  dealt intimately with the lives of women and birthing. 

You can read the stories of these women and the hundreds of others, those who died giving birth and those who went to prison for these unfortunate deaths, in the state records of every state in Australia. There is also considerable detail in the press especially when there is a death involved, either of the baby or the mother. There is also considerable published literature which argues that much of the so-called criminal activity of women was almost always associated with these gender-related reproductive issues. [15] 

There was considerable sympathy in the community for the women who were charged with these crimes and certainly for the women who sought their services.   But for women like Janet Wright, the outcomes of the charges against her, the various convictions and her appearances in court were typical of the times. With little in the way of financial, legal or personal support to help her she was at the behest of a busy, congested and unsympathetic court. [16]

In April 1924, just nine years after her release from Darlinghurst, Janet was charged with vagrancy but not convicted. On her charge sheet it states ‘given a chance’ indicating some sympathy for her plight. Her conviction in July 1928 for ‘unlawfully using an instrument with intent to procure an miscarriage’ saw her receive a twelve month sentence of which she only served a brief portion.  

Perhaps the officials who made the direction ‘I direct that her age and condition be brought under the notice of the Comptroller General of Prisons,’ were successful and she did receive this consideration. However, in December 1928 she was charged again with ‘attempting to procure an abortion’ and given another three years’ hard labour in the Reformatory for Women, Long Bay. [17]

Final years

In 1928 Janet Wright turned 56 and her gaol photograph shows how she much she had aged, her face is lined, thin and sad and she appears stressed and tired. Released from prison in December 1931 the only relevant notation for her death that I can find is recorded in September 1932. [18] The body of an older woman was discovered by a local sergeant in Sophia Street, Surry Hills; this woman died alone, her body not found for several days. The death certificate states that she never married.  

She was buried in the Church of England Cemetery, Botany. Her parents are noted on the death certificate as William Baker Wright and Mary Broadfoot. The informant on her death certificate was Sergeant E F West of No 2 Station, Sydney the same officer who had found her body on 26 September 1932. I am not sure how Sergeant West knew the family details recorded on the certificate. Perhaps he found them in the room where she died and lay undiscovered for several days.  

I am not certain that this death notice is the same Janet Wright I have been researching. At the same time, I cannot find any other Janet Wright whose life and death trajectories are applicable to this research. Nor can I find any further press reports featuring her name after this time and she does not appear in gaol records.

In addition although Janet Wright told the authorities she arrived in Australia on the Ormuz in 1895 there is no record in the unassisted or assisted indexes of the New South Wales State Records. Janet Wright may have travelled steerage of course  as an unassisted passenger and so is not recorded anyway. But to date, the records therefore remain silent. 

Janet Wright’s story is typical of an ordinary woman’s life; a life that may well have been lost to history except that she appeared in court. I am struck by her rather exceptional appearance: the white hair, the thin but strong face and her ability to dress reasonably well despite her deprived circumstances. She was single, alone and had to work. She chose to perform abortions, perhaps because it was an easy and lucrative form of employment (I do not know if she took up this practice when she first arrived in 1895 as the twelve years to when she appears in court in 1908 provide no recorded clues).

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However once Janet Wright did take up this work her life and her work did not go well as she stumbled from one prison admission to another. I wonder about her time in prison and how that incarceration changed her, or if it did? I wonder if in prison she met other women who had been charged with a similar offence and she was encouraged, by her friendships and experiences with them, to go back to the same activity once she and they were released.

In any case she was poor and in some difficulty as was seen in the charge of vagrancy in 1924. She would have turned to abortion as a way to make a living and, in the end, it was also a speedy way back to a cell. I was also touched by her survival from breast cancer before she arrived in Australia. It was a young age to deal with such a tumultuous event. In the end that is all I can know [19] about Janet Wright: nurse, midwife, abortionist and convicted felon, and an immigrant from Scotland in 19th-century New South Wales.

About the author

Dr Noeline Kyle is a professional historian and honorary professor at the University of Sydney. She writes women’s history, biography, memoir and family history and teaches writing history in the community. Her most recent research focuses on the women who worked in New South Wales prisons from 1788 to 1961. Her website  has further information and she can be contacted via email.

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[1] Many women called themselves ‘nurse’ or ‘midwife’ and often added qualifications such as ‘certificated’ or ‘qualified in obstetrics’ to their advertisements.  Before the 1890s however there was no training and certainly no requirement for women working in this field to be trained before 1926 in New South Wales.

[2] Nursing History Research Unit, Sydney Nursing School, University of Sydney, <http://sydney.edu.au/nursing/research/affiliates/nursing_history_research_unit.shtml>

[3] Nerida Campbell, Femme Fatale: The Female criminal, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, Sydney, 2008.

[4] Jane Cadzow, ‘A troubled place in the sun, Good Weekend, 10 August 1991, pp.10-18.

John Field, Caring to death: A discursive analysis of nurses who murder patients, Phd Thesis, The University of Adelaide, 2007.

[5] John Field, ibid, p.315.

[6] Judith Allen, Sex and Secrets: Crimes involving Australian women since 1880,Oxford University Press, Melbourne,  1990, p.70.

Susanne Davies, ‘Captives of their bodies: women, law and punishment, 1880-1980s,’in Diane Kirkby, ed. Sex power and  justice: historical perspectives of law in Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1995, p.106.

[7] Daily Telegraph, 11 September 1908.

[8] Darlinghurst Gaol, opened in 1841, closed for women in 1909 and female prisoners were moved to the Reformatory for Women, Long Bay in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1912, 31 May 1928.

[10] Photographic Description Books, State Records NSW..

[11] Evening News, 7 October 1910.

[12] Judith Allen, op cit.

[13] Herald, 10 September 1908.

[14] Sydney Morning Herald, 16 February 1901, 1 April 1910, 31 Mary 1910.

Photographic Description Books, Darlinghurst Gaol, 16 February 1901, 31 may 1910.

[15] Judith Allen, op cit.

Judith Allen, ‘Women, crime and policing in New South Wales, 1880-1939,’ Phd Thesis, School of History, Philosophy & Politics, Macquarie University, 1984.

Irvine Loudon, ‘Deaths in childbed from the Eighteenth Century to 1935,’Medical History, 30, 1986, pp.1-41.

Katrina Alford, Production or reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1850, Oxford University Press, Melbourne,1984, p. 58.

Judy Mackinolty, & Heather Radi, eds. In pursuit of justice: Australian women and the law

1788-1979, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1979.

Anne Summers, Damned whores and god’s police: the colonization of women in Australia, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1975, pp.408-409.

Michal Gilding, The making and breaking of the Australian family, Allen & Unwin, Sydney,1991, pp.70-73.

Kerreen M. Reiger, The disenchantment of the home: modernizing the Australian family, 1880-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, pp. 104-125.

[16] Judith Allen, ibid., pp.101-107.

[17] Photographic Description Books, State Records NSW.

[18] Death Certificate.

[19] My research does continue of course.