My husband once described an early draft of The Edward Street Baby Farm as “your biography of Harriet Lenihan”. It’s not quite that, but Harriet Patricia Lenihan certainly had a central role in the 1907 murder trial at the heart of the book. In fact, I was so intrigued by Harriet that she was one reason I decided to write it.
Harriet was born in Limerick in 1855. She came from a family steeped in literature, music and politics. Her father, Maurice, was the owner and editor of the Limerick Reporter, the author of a famous History of Limerick, the mayor of that city for many years, and the friend of many well known Irish politicians and churchmen.
From an early age, Harriet demonstrated great skill as a pianist and organist. In her teens she went to Paris to study. She later claimed to have been “a member of the Paris Conservatoire of Music”. I haven’t been able to find her name on any lists of alumni of this college, but nor can I find the name of Alice Charbonnet, who was certainly a graduate, and possibly known to Harriet as a fellow student. It is clear from other records that Harriet lived in Paris in her younger days and retained life-long friendships there.
In 1887 she moved to Melbourne, and found a niche among the literati and musical community. When recession hit that side of the country in the late 1890s, she relocated to Perth, where she had some success as a music teacher.
And then, in 1901, she became Western Australia’s first Lady Inspector of Health. In the book I speculate about what prompted her to make such as strange change of career, but it is mere speculation. It was this role that led to her involvement in the baby farming case. The revelations that came out during the inquest into Baby Booth’s death and the trial of Alice Mitchell, led to Harriet being sacked as health inspector. But then she took on an even more surprising role.
Harriet was fascinating to research. Although she never achieved great fame as a musician, her father was well known and her name sometimes appeared in news reports as “the daughter of Maurice Lenihan”. She liked to write letters to the papers, which revealed a lot about her character and point of view. The State Records office in Perth has a copy of her will, and a letter she wrote looking for employment when she first arrived in Perth, which were invaluable as sources.
And of course her name was frequently in the newspapers in Perth for her role as Lady Health Inspector. During my research I created two lists on Trove, one for articles that mention her, the other for letters and articles written by her. I’ve now made these public. Together, they add up to over 180 references.
I also found a few articles about her in Irish newspapers. Here’s one that I came across recently, from the Munster News 2 May 1877. Harriet would have been in her early twenties at the time.
The Edward Street Baby Farm is published by Fremantle Press, and will be on sale in all good bookshops (in Australia and New Zealand at least) from 1 October 2020. It can be pre-ordered online.