Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Woods, Benjamin

by Sherwood Young


Benjamin Woods was the most important police officer in northern New Zealand between 1840 and 1853. He was born in King's County, Ireland, probably in 1787 or 1788, the fifth of six children born to Ann Wilkinson and her husband, Jonathon Woods, a shopkeeper. He married in Dublin, having obtained a marriage licence on 23 November 1812. His wife, like his mother, was called Ann Wilkinson. Benjamin and Ann Woods had four children. During the Napoleonic wars he probably served in the army, and in 1815 joined the newly formed Irish Peace Preservation Police. He worked his way up to the position of district head constable in the Irish Constabulary before moving on to clerical work.

In 1839 Woods and his family sailed on the China to Sydney, Australia. He was still seeking employment when in early 1840 the recently appointed chief police magistrate for New Zealand, Willoughby Shortland, offered him the position of chief constable. Woods located two non-commissioned officers to assist him before travelling with his family to New Zealand on the Westminster. Also aboard the vessel, which left Sydney on 4 March 1840, were Lieutenant Henry Dalton Smart, a corporal, four privates, and ten troop horses to serve as mounts for this force and for the five New South Wales troopers who had accompanied Lieutenant Governor William Hobson to New Zealand earlier in the year.

For a period after their arrival at the Bay of Islands the Woods family were forced to live in a tent. Working conditions were difficult and lawlessness was rife. Undaunted, Woods began appointing constables in Kororareka (Russell). Although he was responsible to the police magistrate at the Bay of Islands, Woods was the effective head of police in the region and by late 1840 had established a police barracks at Kororareka. In December he was chosen by Hobson to become the first chief constable at Auckland, which was to be the new capital. However, the new police magistrate at the Bay of Islands, Thomas Beckham, had this appointment rescinded, so Woods remained in the north.

In 1844 Woods provoked an incident which threatened to disturb the peace between Maori and Pakeha. While forcibly entering Joseph Bryars's dwelling near Kawakawa on 22 September at 3 a.m. with an arrest warrant, he accidentally injured with his sword Kohu, a woman of rank from Kawiti's hapu. Her brother, Hori Kingi Tahua, demanded compensation. When Tahua appeared at Kororareka with a large armed party the magistrate, Beckham, gave him (with a bad grace) a horse worth £10. Governor Robert FitzRoy commented, 'I wish the Constables had gone unarmed – and waited at the man's house till daylight'. Woods was castigated for his provocative conduct. However, this was but one of a series of such incidents which preceded the outbreak of war in 1845, signifying a general deterioration in race relations.

After the sacking of Kororareka in 1845 Woods was, for almost a year, responsible for policing the suburbs of Auckland. He worked in conjunction with Auckland's chief constable, James Smith, who controlled the centre of the town. From 1 April 1846 Woods became once again chief constable of Kororareka (by now known as Russell). In February 1847 he was enrolled, on Governor George Grey's instruction, as a sergeant major in the new Auckland Armed Police Force, which had been established by the Constabulary Force Ordinance 1846. Inspector T. R. Atkÿns, Woods's new superior in Auckland, sent him a detachment of four armed constables.

From 1848 until 1853 the Auckland Armed Police Force was one of the two main detachments of the Armed Police Force of New Ulster. Armed police were stationed at Auckland, Howick, Onehunga, the Bay of Islands and Mangonui. The services carried out by these men included the carriage of mail – an effective way of gathering intelligence and providing security for those on the delivery routes.

In 1853, at the beginning of provincial government, Woods retired from the police force. He returned to Auckland to become bailiff at the Resident Magistrate's Court, retiring from that position in 1859. He died at Auckland on 6 November 1867 and was buried in the Grafton cemetery. In 1986, during the New Zealand Police centennial celebrations, police and some of his descendants unveiled a memorial to him there.

He whakaaturanga anō

Rārangi pukapuka

    Hill, R. S. Policing the colonial frontier. 2 vols. Wellington, 1986

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Sherwood Young. 'Woods, Benjamin', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)