Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Anne Hutchison, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Barbara Weldon, who was to become one of the more colourful characters on the West Coast, was born in County Limerick, Ireland, probably between 1829 and 1837. By 1861 she was in Melbourne, Australia, where she made a number of court appearances for drink-related offences, and was described as 'a notorious character'. She arrived in Dunedin early in 1863. A single woman of limited means, she made a living as a prostitute.
Barbara Weldon quickly came to the attention of the Dunedin police, appearing on numerous occasions in the Dunedin Resident Magistrate's Court on charges of drunkenness and disorderly conduct. The magistrate described her as 'the most drunken and disorderly woman' in Dunedin. In November 1869 the authorities acted to rid their respectable streets of her influence by the simple expedient of packing her on to the Hokitika coach, with a one-way ticket. She made her first appearance in the Hokitika Resident Magistrate's Court on 29 November 1869, charged with using obscene language in a public place. Her sentence was a fine of £10, or three months in gaol with hard labour. Thereafter she appeared regularly in court in Hokitika and Kumara. She was seldom able to pay fines and consequently served many terms in gaol. Greymouth also played host to Barbara Weldon; however, although arrested and convicted there, she would be sent back to Hokitika for imprisonment.
Her convictions were for drunkenness, disorderly behaviour, vagrancy, obscene language, attempted suicide and, on at least one occasion, soliciting. The first three charges, laid under the Vagrant Act 1866, were often used by the police to regulate the ways in which prostitutes could work. However, prostitution was not in itself a criminal offence; indeed, it seems to have been publicly acknowledged and tolerated to a degree. Many of the 40-odd prostitutes who worked in the Hokitika area were given nicknames: 'Hobart Town Sal' of Woodstock, and the obese 'Porpoise Mary' being two examples. And, from about 1870, the West Coast Times court reporters became rather fond of publishing items about Barbara Weldon 'the notorious'.
Barbara Weldon's police record of 1869 described her as five feet and one inch tall, of stout build and sickly appearance, blind in one eye, and slightly bald on the back of her head. She could read, but not write. Her voice was loud and raucous, as newspaper reports indicated: one described her as 'a woman with an extremely voluble tongue'; another said 'Barbara Weldon made Sunday morning hideous with her yells'.
Although she was poor and probably ill, Barbara Weldon received little sympathy. The authorities regarded her escapades with derision or annoyance and these attitudes were reflected in newspaper accounts. In September 1870 Barbara Weldon was tried for attempted suicide at the Westland Circuit Supreme Court. The West Coast Times described how, 'being rather elevated through worshipping pretty freely at the shrine of Bacchus, she indulged herself with a quiet roll in the surf'. According to the constable who apprehended her, she had been in an 'excited' state, repeating that she would 'drown herself again and again'.
When she was returned from Greymouth to Hokitika in October 1874 to serve a two month sentence for vagrancy, the West Coast Times hoped that 'she will re-visit the scenes of her latest deportation. Turn and turn about is fair-play; Hokitika has had Barbara for some years, it is only right that she should give the sister town a spell.' No doubt as a result of her experiences, Barbara Weldon had a profound contempt for authority. When out of prison, she would apparently throw stones on the roof of the gaol and yell insults at the warders. A gaoler's report described her as 'a perfect pest outside the Gaol, and a continual source of trouble when in Gaol'.
On the night of 31 October 1882 a small house on the outskirts of Kumara, occupied by Barbara Weldon, burnt down. Her body was found lying among the ashes. The verdict in the coroner's court was her final one: Barbara Weldon 'was accidentally burnt to death casually and by misfortune, and not otherwise.' She was buried in the Kumara cemetery.