Story: Monson, Henry

Page 1: Biography

Monson, Henry

1793–1866

Gaoler

This biography, written by Elsie Locke, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Henry Monson was born at Cawood, Yorkshire, England, on 25 August 1793, the son of Ann Monson and her husband, Bernard Monson, a labourer. He married Ann Kidall of Swaffham, Norfolk, at St Pancras Old Church, London, on 3 November 1825 and set up as a builder in George Street, London; there were five children of the marriage.

Monson's business collapsed in the crisis of 1847. Although too old to meet the criteria for assistance from the Otago Association, he enlisted the good offices of his neighbour, the mathematician Charles Babbage, and was granted passage to Otago on the John Wickliffe in 1848 with his two eldest sons, William Henry and John Robert Monson. Ann Monson remained in London to settle their business affairs, and although she was expected to join him in 1856, for unknown reasons she never arrived. The third son, Frederick Kidall Monson, emigrated in 1858.

A keen Methodist, with a social conscience and some experience of ragged schools, Monson helped to set up a school during the voyage out. The carpentry skills of the three Monsons were initially in demand, but hard times followed, as most of the settlers knocked together cottages for themselves. In January 1850 Monson's own house burned down with all its contents, including books from Babbage awaiting delivery to Governor George Grey. Destitute, Monson reminded Grey of Babbage's personal recommendation; the resident magistrate, A. R. C. Strode, was instructed to appoint him as gaoler.

Monson held this post from 1 September 1851 until 15 November 1861. Until his appointment, Otago had depended on Constable Johnny Barr for part-time gaol duties, but the appointment of a judge required a permanent situation. The regular inmates were sailors who disobeyed lawful commands, petty thieves, drunks, debtors, and occasional 'lunatics' who lacked any other place for safe keeping. The rules and regulations provided were quite unworkable in a wooden box of a gaol approximately 21 by 15 feet, with a tiny yard. No other guidance being forthcoming, Monson devised his own 'plans of opperation' and recorded his frustrations in his unconventional journal, which is also a rare mine of information on the lives of working people, and well laced with humour and human interest. His life was one long battle with the authorities, notably with Strode, for material improvements to the gaol, more adequate rations, regular visits and attention to the spiritual and educational needs of the prisoners.

Monson never flogged, nor used the harsh methods of control current in British prisons. In the absence of any real security in either of his buildings (the first gaol burned down in 1855 and the second was only slightly better), he relied on 'moral suasion' and the assurance that good behaviour was the passport to future employment. He maintained the maximum of cleanliness in primitive and often crowded conditions, took prayers daily, and played the violin or read to his prisoners; some he taught to read and write.

In Monson's lifetime the balladeer Charles Thatcher and others were making fun of the Dunedin gaol, with more zest than accuracy; and Otago folklore continued the process. Certainly in 1859 Monson admitted to a judicial inquiry into discipline in the gaol that, being without other assistance, he had sent prisoners to collect their own rations; that having insufficient space inside the fence, he had allowed them to exercise outside it; and that he was compelled to treat his prisoners well, in order to prevail on them to remain. But there was sound common sense and a strict regard for the law behind his methods, which were vindicated by the inquiry. Monson was shrewd as well as humane, prepared to stand up for his charges when he thought them unfairly treated, and genuinely concerned with their rehabilitation. His style, however, was too individual and too much at variance with current ideas of authority to carry over into the penal system generally.

His most celebrated prisoner was the superintendent of Otago, James Macandrew, committed for debt in 1861; he stayed only six hours until, in his official capacity, he declared his own house a gaol and appointed his own keeper. Monson was outraged at this flouting of the law, but sharp enough to use the confusion to secure additional staff, including his son Frederick. But this was the goldrush year and sterner controls were needed. Monson had grown old and infirm, and the authorities eased him out.

Monson's closest supports were his son John Monson, of Port Chalmers, and family friend Thomas Blatch, at whose farm in West Taieri he died on 9 December 1866.

How to cite this page:

Elsie Locke. 'Monson, Henry', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1m49/monson-henry (accessed 24 May 2018)