Crimes of the 19th century: Canterbury Police Gazette

Clothing stolen off a clothes line in St Albans, vegetables ripped out of a Cashel Street garden, a vindictive criminal threatening to burn down the house of a prosecution lawyer, “furious” riding of a horse along Lincoln Road… these are just some of the crimes and misdemeanours reported to Christchurch police between 1863 and 1877.

These (and many other crimes) were recorded in the Canterbury Police Gazettes the official journal of the Canterbury Police force.

Then, as now, crime took many forms from drunkenness and disorderly behaviour to forgery and vagrancy. Theft was commonplace, especially of the opportunistic kind.

Saved from fire, lifted from Hereford Street

On the evening of Saturday 4 June in 1864 a building on Colombo Street caught fire. As the fire began to take hold frantic efforts were made to extract property from the building. Furniture was deposited in nearby Hereford Street beyond the reach of the fire. Hotel patrons emptied out of nearby drinking establishments to watch the unfolding spectacle. Amidst all the chaos a few men had nefarious intentions and took possession of some of the goods and carted them off into the night.

Edward O’Farrell, John Thompson, George Maguire and James Hogan were later arrested for the theft. Mr Hogan was eventually discharged as there was insufficient evidence to tie him to the crime but the other three served a short stint in prison. 

Whole pockets (including trousers) picked

One hapless West Coast goldminer fell victim to a cunning and opportunistic theft. Daniel Slattery had enjoyed considerable success prospecting for gold. On the evening of 21 May 1866 he had pitched his tent near Okarito and settled in for the night. Before going to bed he wrapped up gold dust valued at 180 pounds (today this would be worth about $20,000) and carefully placed it in his trouser pockets. He placed his trousers next to him and fell asleep. The next morning he woke to discover that someone had cut open his tent, reached in and pulled out the trousers and ran off with the gold.

The same method was used to rob James Kenny while he was asleep in his tent on Stafford Street, Hokitika just a few days earlier. In this case the theft was more brazenly executed. The thief removed a pair of trousers containing money that Mr Kenny was using as a pillow!

That's out of line

Stealing clothes and linen from washing lines was particularly rife. Garments and linen put out to dry on a clothes line would often disappear by the next morning. Dr J. W. S. Coward lived in a building on Oxford Terrace – the building still stands though has been greatly modified since he resided there and is now known as the Pegasus Arms Restaurant and Bar.  In late December 1866 he had put several blankets and a bed spread on the clothes-line at the back of his house. When he next checked on the items they had disappeared (The report of the theft suggests that he may not have been overly concerned about the loss of the bed spread describing it as “much worn.”)

Some unfortunate Christchurch residents were struck on more than one occasion.
In July 1875 Mrs Galbraith of Cranmer Square left two new shirts on the line which were stolen. She was the victim of a similar theft just six months later when two skirts disappeared from her clothes line.

Missing: Coats, also... goats

Quite a number of reported thefts were later found to be the result of misunderstandings.

One such instance occurred when Alfred Waters visited the Library at the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace at about 7pm on Thursday 30 July 1874. He left his coat hanging in the passageway before entering the library. Two hours later, just before the library was about to close its doors for the night, he returned to the passageway to collect his coat only to find it was missing. He promptly reported it stolen only for it to be returned soon after by someone who appears to have mistook his coat for their own.

Many horse and cattle owners mistook the disappearance of animals from a paddock as theft. However in most cases the animals would later be found to have strayed into a neighbouring property or been apprehended and taken to one of the city’s pounds. So often did this happen that it’s reasonable to assume that complaints about “stolen” horses or cattle were met with an exasperated sigh by the policeman receiving the complaint. Livestock owners were reliant on rickety wooden fences or low and slow growing, patchy hedges which often provided multiple escape routes for the determined freedom-seeking animal.

More quaint and unusual crimes

Dipping into the Canterbury Police Gazettes provides a fascinating glimpse of crime in colonial Canterbury. You may be surprised to find out what happened in your neighbourhood (or backyard!)

  • Mrs Burford, wife of an actor is accused of stealing a wig belonging to William Lingard of the Hoskins’ Theatrical Company (CPG 1876 Nov Vol14 No21)
  • Thomas Brown left a bag outside a room at a brothel in Madras Street, Christchurch. Later discovered the bag and its contents had disappeared (CPG 1867 Nov Vol5 no22)
  • Miss Marian Ashwin woke up in the middle of the night to discover a man trying to get underneath her bed at her Armagh Street home (CPG 1876 Dec Vol14No24)
  • William Inglis arrested for stealing a duck (CPG 1865 Mar vol2 no3)
  • William Cole of Ross is wanted for stealing women’s underclothing belonging to Miss J McNair. He is described as having a “remarkably repulsive appearance” (CPG 1867 Jan vol5 no1)
  • Mr Augustus F. Johnston’s house at Waimea was reported to have been “burglariously entered” (CPG 1867 Feb vol5 no4)
  • A rose tree was cut with a sharp knife and a lily broken in Jane Stewart’s garden at Armagh Street, Christchurch (CPG 1876 Dec Vol14No24)
  • John Crawford was arrested in Christchurch charged with being drunk whilst in charge of a cab (CPG 1870 May Vol8 no5)
  • John Jackson and John Jones were accused of shooting at wildlife in Hagley Park (CPG 1874 Aug vol12 no15)
  • Mr Baldwin of Christchurch is suspected of stealing seven hyacinth plants at the Masonic Hall, Christchurch (CPG 1875 Sep vol13 no18)
  • Library book “Jorrock’s Jaunts and Jollities” stolen from Police Library, Depot, Christchurch (CPG 1875 Oct vol13 no19) only to be found located in the library 2 weeks later (CPG 1875 Oct vol 13 no20).
  • Ten heads of broccoli were stolen from the garden of Rev H Burnett. Vegetables described as "not identifiable". (CPG 1876 NovVol14No21)


In my next post I will describe the insights that the Canterbury Police Gazettes reveal about how police conducted their investigations.

More about crime in colonial era Christchurch

Catalogue link for Christchurch crimes 1850-75Catalogue link for Christchurch crimes and scandals 1876-99

We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Christchurch City Libraries