Kōrero: Prisons

Whārangi 2. Early prisons, 1840–1879

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Imprisonment as punishment

Imprisonment as a form of punishment did not exist in traditional Māori society. In Europe before the late 18th century the primary forms of punishment were execution, physical punishment, fines or deportation. Prisons were largely used as holding institutions rather than as a punishment in themselves. From 1718 to 1776 many British convicts were transported to North America. With the American revolution and independence, Britain was forced to abandon this practice. In the following years sentences of imprisonment began to be regularly imposed as a punishment. Transportation resumed in 1788, when Australia became a penal colony, but imprisonment had also become an established punishment.

Transported convicts

Some of New Zealand’s earliest European settlers may have been escaped convicts. James Cavanagh escaped from a convict ship that called into New Zealand in 1804. Charlotte Badger and Catharine Hagerty arrived in the Bay of Islands in 1806 after mutineers seized the ship they were travelling on from Sydney to Tasmania and brought them to New Zealand. Many of the early sealers around New Zealand’s coasts were former convicts. So were some of the early shore whalers, including Jacky Guard, who established Te Awaiti whaling station in the Marlborough Sounds in 1827.

Reformers and the penitentiary

British reformers such as John Howard, Elizabeth Fry and Jeremy Bentham were active in drawing attention to appalling prison conditions in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century. During this same period Quakers in Pennsylvania devised the idea of the penitentiary, a place where prisoners were held in isolation from each other. This was supposed to cancel out bad influences, giving inmates time to reflect on and repent of their crimes.

Imprisoning the mentally ill

In early colonial New Zealand – as in Britain at the time – the mentally ill were often treated as people who should be imprisoned. In July 1842 Felton Mathew, the chief magistrate of Auckland, imposed a one-month prison sentence on a man who had been ‘wandering about the town in a state of mental imbecility – with no means of support – no employment, and a nuisance to the respectable inhabitants of the town.’1

Early New Zealand jails

New Zealand’s first jails were set up in the 1840s in Russell (now Okiato), Kororāreka (now Russell), the Hokianga, Auckland, Wellington, Akaroa, Nelson, New Plymouth and Whanganui. These first jails were usually wood or raupō (bulrush) huts, so flimsy that prisoners often had to be chained up to prevent them escaping. While technically under the control of the governor, in most settler communities the first jails were built by the local administration.

Gaolers (jailers) ran the jails, answering to sheriffs appointed by the governor. Jails were underfunded and overcrowded with poor facilities. Prisoners were crammed together regardless of their age, gender or crimes. Debtors, the homeless and the mentally ill were held alongside dangerous criminals. It was thought that the harsh conditions of imprisonment would act as a deterrent to future offending. Prison was seldom regarded as a way to rehabilitate offenders into society.


Between 1840 and 1854, 100 people were transported from New Zealand to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). Most had been convicted of property offences, but there were also five Māori from Whanganui, who were transported for rebellion against the Queen.

Basic jail

The New Plymouth jail in the early 1850s consisted of two cells and an airing yard. An average of seven or eight prisoners a night were locked in two damp, poorly ventilated and congested cells. Escape was relatively easy. The gaoler was not on duty at night and the prison door was secured by a peg, rather than a lock. While the peg could not be reached from inside the jail, it was easy for a prisoner to arrange for friends to release them at night.

Provincial control

With the formation of the provinces in 1853, prison administration passed to provincial governments. During the provincial era, from 1853 to 1876, there were four major prisons, at Auckland, Wellington, Lyttelton and Dunedin. By 1876 there were 30 minor jails around the country. A prison census carried out in 1878 showed 641 prisoners in the four major prisons, 343 in the minor jails and 70 held in local lockups.

Jails were a low priority for provincial spending, and remained overcrowded and substandard. Prison labour gangs were regularly used for road-building and other public works. The prison system faced mounting criticism from the late 1850s onwards, particularly from the judiciary. A royal commission in 1868 called for a centralised colonial prison system, a unified standard of conditions and the abolition of public work gangs. No action was taken on these recommendations until after the abolition of the provinces in 1876.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in R. I. M. Burnett, Hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed: New Zealand’s search for its own penal philosophy. Wellington: National Archives of New Zealand, 1995, p. 31. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Peter Clayworth, 'Prisons - Early prisons, 1840–1879', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/prisons/page-2 (accessed 18 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Peter Clayworth, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012