By 1901, Irish-born women made up 6.5% of Canterbury’s
non-Māori female population, but they served 40% of the women’s sentences at
Lyttelton. This might seem surprising, but remember that the Irish famine of
the late 1840s created a generation of displaced and orphaned children, many of
whom made their way to the English colonies without much in the way of support,
skills or prospects. They came of age in the 1860s and 70s. We don’t know yet
whether any of the women of Lyttelton Gaol were famine orphans, but wider
historical events almost certainly contributed to this over-representation of
the Irish. Around 10% of the sentences were served by women who had been born
in New Zealand.
More than 300 of the women listed their occupation as
Prostitute, but only around 100 prostitution offences are recorded. Far more
frequent are drunkenness (at over 650 offences), and ‘anti-social’ public
offences like using indecent language, loitering and disorderly conduct (at
more than 340). Repeat offending was very common.
Being Irish, publicly visible, known to the police, and
fond of a drink, seem to be factors that led many women time and again to
Ages are not always recorded, but the youngest female
prisoner we have found was Australian-born Emily Blackler. Aged 14 in 1869, she
was sentenced to 7 days’ Hard Labour for stealing a hat and locket from an
acquaintance. She never returned to the Gaol, so perhaps the deterrent effect worked
The oldest woman identified so far was Irish-born Julia
Crowley, who was sentenced to 12 months in 1913, aged around 80. This was her
20th sentence at Lyttelton Gaol. Her offences relate mainly to
drunkenness, disorderly behaviour and being homeless. Julia’s final sentence at
Lyttelton was a long one, but you do have to wonder whether it was partly seen
as a means of protecting this elderly woman by providing a roof over her head.
Although her date of birth is not certain, Julia would have been a child during
the Irish famine. She eventually died in 1917, when her age is recorded as 84.