Who were the women of Lyttelton Gaol?

View over the Gaol site from St Davids Street in the mid-1860s. We think the building with the open windows is a cell block, although it wouldn’t be very secure. The back of the Gaoler’s house is visible at the right, Lyttelton Museum collection.

Lyttelton Museum is just beginning to understand the stories of the women who served time in our town’s prison. We have at least as many questions as answers, and we hope you will join the conversation to help us learn more.

What we know so far is that more than 800 women served around
2000 sentences at Lyttelton Gaol between 1868 and 1913 – an average of about 45
sentences a year. The sentences weren’t evenly spread out like that though. For
example, it appears that no women were imprisoned at Lyttelton for most of the
1880s. We don’t yet know why.

Almost all of the women’s crimes were committed outside Lyttelton.
Most in Christchurch, but some in other parts of Canterbury and even the North
Island.

Sentences were usually short, a few days or weeks, but some women were in and out of Lyttelton Gaol frequently. Sisters Bella and Mary McKegney, for example, were there around 80 times between them over a 20 year period. Kate Moore was imprisoned 80 times in 17 years.

During these years, there was little in the way of jobs for
women outside the home, no welfare state, and no widows’, child support or
unemployment benefits. More than 300 of the sentences served by women at
Lyttelton relate to having no income, and another 300 to being homeless. Being
broke and alone created bleak prospects for women in 19th century
Canterbury.