TRAVEL PACK INFORMATION
Baby farmer, convicted murderer
This biography, written by Lynley Hood, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
“Minnie Dean was born Williamina McCulloch on 2 September 1844, at West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the fourth in a family of eight girls of Elizabeth Swan and her husband, John McCulloch, an engine driver with the Glasgow, Paisley and Greenock Railway. Of her life between the death of her mother of cancer in 1857 and her arrival in New Zealand nothing is known. She appeared in Invercargill in the early 1860s as Mrs McCulloch, a widow with two small daughters. Her neighbours believed that she had come from Tasmania where her physician husband had died. No evidence of her marriage, the births of her children or the death of her husband has been found.
On 19 June 1872 Williamina McCulloch married Charles Dean, an innkeeper, formerly of Tasmania, at his home in Etal Creek, Southland. During the 1860s Etal Creek had flourished as a wagon stop on the four-day journey from Riverton to the Central Otago goldfields, but by 1872 the gold rush was over – Etal Creek had become a backwater. In 1878 Charles Dean turned to farming. In 1882 his rabbit-infested 300 acres, on which he ran 150 sheep, were valued at £1,200. In 1884 the land boom collapsed and Charles went bankrupt. He was discharged six months later, but by then the Deans were destitute.
Both Williamina’s daughters had married and left home by this time, but in 1880 the childless Deans had adopted a five-year-old girl, Margaret Cameron. About 1887 Minnie, Charles and Margaret moved to Winton where they took possession of The Larches, a two-storeyed, seven- or eight-roomed house on 22 acres a mile out of town that had been abandoned to the mortgagee two years earlier. The house burned down soon after they moved in. On the site Charles built a two-roomed cottage with a lean-to. He then began raising pigs, and his wife began taking in unwanted babies for payment.
The practice of ‘baby farming’, as it was known, was a necessary evil in Western countries at this time. Effective contraception was not widely available, abortion was dangerous, unmarried mothers were ostracised and little provision was made for the care of their offspring. Many desperate women replied to Minnie Dean’s discreet newspaper advertisements: ‘respectable Married Woman (comfortable home, country) Wants to Adopt an infant – Address, Childless, Times Office’. A legal agreement was signed for most of the babies she took in; some were taken for 5s. to 8s. a week, others were adopted for lump sums of between £10 and £30.”