The McKegney sisters: ‘Vicious Women’

Plan for proposed changes to Lyttetlon Gaol in the 1890s.
We think the exercise yard marked with circles is on the site of today’s ‘grassy’ field, and the rose garden is in the other open space above it.

If reality TV had existed a century ago, ‘Keeping up with the McKegneys’ would
surely have been a ratings winner. Christchurch sisters Mary and Bella McKegney
were repeatedly in Lyttelton Gaol for causing mischief, and newspaper Court
reporters described their exploits with breathless exasperation for almost 50
years.

Mary first appears in the prisoner release records in November 1892 (aged 18), and
elder sister Bella in July 1893 (aged 25). Both had been charged with using
indecent language. From then on, the sisters – who had a habit of exchanging
names – were frequent residents of the Gaol. Mary was imprisoned on 41 separate
charges and Bella 34, usually for drunkenness, vagrancy or disturbing the
peace. There were ten instances where the sisters were tried and jailed
together. On the first of these, establishing what would become a pattern of
defiance before judges, the pair “behaved very badly in Court”.

The McKegneys did not limit their activities to Canterbury. In December 1893, they
appeared before a judge in Auckland, charged with disturbing the residents of
the Salvation Army Home by repeatedly ringing the doorbell, sitting on the
windowsills, and claiming ownership of the building. A police officer described
these unwelcome visitors as “the most notorious pair of females to ever walk
the streets of Auckland”.

By the time of their deaths back in Christchurch, Mary and Bella had amassed a
combined total of more than 300 convictions.