According to her own account Mary Ann Greaves was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1834; her parents' names and occupations are not known. In 1859 she moved to Canterbury, New Zealand, from Tasmania. By 1864 Greaves was one of the 14 known prostitutes working in the Christchurch area, and was said to be living with another woman in the only known brothel in Kaiapoi. Her life was typical of that of a class of women whose behaviour caused public indignation, and consequent strict surveillance by the police.
By 1866 Mary Ann Greaves was already being described as an 'old offender' and was making repeated court appearances on charges of drunkenness, disorderly behaviour and obscene language. In that year she was convicted, along with Mary Holmes and Charles Yates, of assault and robbery on Thomas Davis and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. In 1869 Greaves met a man in the Criterion Hotel, went outside with him, and while engaged in other matters allegedly rifled his pockets. When he accused her of theft she called him a liar and struck him across the head. She was found guilty by a Supreme Court jury, and being regarded as a hardened offender was imprisoned for two years. She was released at 4 p.m. one Saturday afternoon in May 1871 but by that evening had been arrested again for drunkenness and soliciting in Gloucester Street and was returned to gaol for a further month.
Repeated terms of imprisonment for drunkenness, soliciting, vagrancy and larceny were to follow. In 1872 Mary Ann Greaves promised to leave town after she had been arrested for soliciting in the presence of a group of men outside the Mitre Hotel, but when she failed to do so was labelled 'incorrigible' and returned to gaol. More sentences for vagrancy followed as well as six months' imprisonment for being found illegally on premises. In November 1874, having just been released from prison the week before on a drunk and disorderly charge, she was again charged with being drunk and soliciting in a public place. She was sentenced to a fine of 40s., or 96 hours' imprisonment with hard labour in default of payment, and returned to gaol once more. She was described at this time as being five feet four inches tall, of medium build, with a fresh complexion, sandy hair, grey eyes, a large mouth, and slightly pockmarked in appearance.
Mary Ann Greaves was also charged in 1876 under the Contagious Diseases Act 1869 with not attending for medical examination, and was detained in the Contagious Diseases Reformatory. In 1881 the licensee of the Family Hotel testified to her using 'the most disgusting language it was possible to imagine.' She was fined £5 or, in default of payment, sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment with hard labour.
Greaves served two further short sentences in 1884, and in 1887 she and another well-known prostitute, Ellen Parkinson, who had come to Canterbury in one of the first four ships, were each convicted and fined 30s., plus 2s. 6d. cab hire, for being drunk and fighting in a public place. By 1893, however, Greaves had seemingly settled down. She was about 59, and although still listed on a register of brothels compiled that year, was described as quiet and living in Sydenham where she keeps 'a notorious thief'. It is not known if she ever married. She died of apoplexy at Christchurch on 18 February 1897.
Mary Ann Greaves was one of hundreds of women who worked as prostitutes in colonial New Zealand. She belonged to a particular class of prostitutes referred to by the police as 'rowdy' women, whose lifestyles were often characterised by excessive alcohol use and transient residence; her life provides us with a glimpse into their world.