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The Midwife and the Laudanum

Written by Annie O'Riley ( on April 6, 2012

Try to imagine what it would have been like to be young, just married and about to have a baby in Pakenham during the 1880s. Your husband is older, he is a butcher and owns an abattoir. He has money problems and your house is only partially complete. As you go into labour, the midwife is called. She is an older woman- the wife of a bootmaker and experienced at delivering babies.

When you were growing up you watched as your mother delivered six other babies. You played and cuddled and minded these beautiful little souls and as you watched, four of your little brothers and sisters died before they were two years old.

The use of laudanum (an opiate) for pain relief was a widespread practice during the late 1800s in Victoria. It could be bought from any chemist store without a prescription and the instructions were virtually nonexistent. There were hundreds of overdoses reported in the newspapers.

Mary Ann Finch was living in Bunyip when she married a butcher named Thomas Stones in 1884. Her father, Lawrence Finch was the licensee of the Gippsland hotel in Bunyip.

Report in the Australian Town and Country Journal on Saturday 21st February 1885. “In Pakenham, Mrs. Stone, 22 years of age, who was married 10 months ago, was attended during her confinement by Mrs. Thompson, the wife of a bootmaker. She is reported to be an experienced nurse. On Friday night Mrs. Thompson is alleged to have accidentally administered 800 drops of laudanum to the patient, who died two minutes previously to a doctor having arrived. The nurse has been arrested, and has been taken to the Berwick lock-up pending an inquest.”

Melbourne, Tuesday “At the inquest which was held on the body of Mrs. Stone, in Pakenham, the jury found that Mrs. Thompson, the midwife, had not administered opium to excess (medicinally): but had shown gross carelessness and ignorance. The coroner committed her for trial on the charge of manslaughter.”

In the Melbourne Argus on Saturday 21st March 1885, a report of the Supreme Court Criminal Sittings stated that  the dose of laudanum was not excessive. It was also reported that the deceased was very ill at the time and her life was despaired of before she took the opiate. A verdict of not guilty was returned and a recommendation was made to the midwife that she be more careful in the future.

Mary Ann was buried at the Pakenham cemetery along with her child, Thomas Laurence Finch Stones. Of the seven children her parents produced, only her sister, Sarah Alice, survived. In 1897 when Sarah was 35 years old she took over the license to the Bunyip hotel. Laurence Finch died the following year.