Alice Mitchell remembered

One of the most frequent comments I hear about The Edward Street Baby Farm is ‘How come I’ve never heard about this before?’ That was my own reaction when I first came across the ‘baby farming case’ and the 1907 Alice Mitchell trial. It caused a sensation at the time, and had such a significant impact on Western Australia’s legal system. How could it have been forgotten?

The Old Courthouse Law Museum in Perth, Western Australia
The Old Courthouse Law Museum.
Image from Heritage Perth

There is at least one place in Perth where the Alice Mitchell case is remembered. In the grounds of the imposing Supreme Court building on St George’s terrace is a much smaller building that looks rather like a chapel. In fact, at times it was used as a chapel, a school room and even as a concert hall. But it’s main purpose, when it was built in 1836, was as a court house. Now the Old Court House is home to the Law Museum, dedicated to preserving and promoting the history of the legal profession and the law in Western Australia.

Inside the front door is the court room itself, where trials took place until 1857. Smaller rooms behind it hold displays on the history of various aspects of the law in WA, going right back to the first days of the Swan River Colony. In one corner of one of these rooms is a panel about laws relating to children. And there it is — a poster that mentions the Alice Mitchell trial and its significance.

The Law Museum is unique in Australia, and well worth a visit. Apart from admiring the beautifully restored building itself, you can also discover lots about how the law developed in this state in relation to women, Aboriginal people and convicts. You can learn about some famous cases, and the judges who heard them.

But if you can’t get to visit in person, check out the excellent Museum website and take a virtual tour. See if you can spot the mention of Alice Mitchell.

This video, narrated by Richard Offen, gives a brief history of the building.

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris

Kathleen O’Connor of Paris, by West Australian author Amanda Curtin, introduced me to a woman and an artist I’d heard about only vaguely before.

Kathleen, or ‘Kate’ as she preferred to be called, was born in New Zealand and grew up in Fremantle. Her father, C.Y. O’Connor, is well known in Western Australia for his role in building major infrastructure projects, such as Fremantle harbour and the Coolgardie pipeline. But Kate spent most of her adult life working among the artists in Paris and London.

Amanda Curtin follows her progress as an artist through her long life (1876 to 1968), interspersing Kate’s story with her own experiences while researching it. The narrative builds a picture of a woman who was totally committed to her art, enduring many hardships for the sake of it. Descriptions of the paintings themselves, their background and their fate, take up quite a lot of the text.

While Kate’s sisters “married well” and sometimes came to her aid financially, she remained single. She was independent, bohemian, eccentric, in love with the life she made for herself in the artist community of Paris. When all that came to an end with the Nazi invasion of France during the war, she was devastated.

But she went on painting. Even in her late eighties, when she had finally returned to Perth due to ill health, she continued to paint. She held some of her most successful exhibitions then. It’s an interesting and inspiring story. (Published by Fremantle Press in 2018)

Below is an interview with Kathleen O’Connor from 1965, when she was almost ninety (audio only).

(This review first appeared in the September issue of my newsletter, The Scribbler. To receive monthly newsletters in your inbox, subscribe here.)