Christchurch Gets Its First Lock-Up – July 1852

On 9th October 1846, New Zealand received its first law enforcers.  After the Police Act 1886 was passed, this developed into New Zealand’s first national, civil police force – and the first recognised Sergeant was Westport local, John Nash.

It didn’t take the new settlements of Lyttelton and Christchurch very long to need a lock-up upon the arrival of the Canterbury Association ships.  Lyttelton’s two first police officers, Peter Cameron and J. Sheed, – who had been assigned to the port town in May 1850 – were kept busy with drunks, assaults and sailors who had decided to desert their shipping posts.  As the population grew, there were soon robberies, people not paying their bills and disputes over land boundaries.    Appointed by John Robert Godley, James Edward Fitzgerald (the founder of The Press and our first Superintendent) was our first sub-inspector of the police.  He was known to walk the streets of Lyttelton, on the lookout for trouble, between his writing and editing for the Lyttelton Times.

There, on the hillside of Lyttelton, a flimsy V-hut was erected as our first holding cell in 1851.  This appeared to have served the community well – until the prisoners kicked through the floorboards one night and from inside, lifted the structure right off the ground.  Fortunately, this was witnessed by our small law enforcement team who quietly guided the fleeing criminals – and their mobile prison – blindly down the hill towards the police barracks.  Upon their arrival, they were re-arrested but it had become crystal clear that a better jail was needed.

A clay, three cell gaol was soon constructed by Charles Crawford (Moncks Spur was once known as Crawford’s Spur) followed by a stone two story building built by William Chaney (who would go on to the work on the Christchurch Cathedral).  Both of these were only temporary – as the much larger Lyttelton Goal took a decade to be completed by prison labour. Although demolished in the 1920’s, three cells and the prisons’ concrete steps can still be viewed from Oxford Street today.   Seven hangings took place behind its walls from 1868 to 1918.

Meanwhile, in Christchurch, a similar establishment was needed. Designed and built by Isaac Luck (the future brother-in-law of famed architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountfort) a lock-up was erected in the South-western corner of Market Place (Victoria Square, near Armagh Street) in July 1852.  He was so proud of his project that he held a party there upon its completion.  This simple building – which included a room for a solitary gaoler – was just holding cells.  Anyone sentenced to serve time did so in Lyttelton.    Sadly, one of our last links to Isaac, the ‘Luck Building’ (Colombo Street, near Gloucester Street) was lost to the earthquakes of 2011/12.  It had once been part of a larger building (being partly demolished in 1973 to make room for another building project) and was designed by Mountfort in Luck’s memory in 1880.

By late 1858, police barracks had been built in Market Place and three resident constables tried their best to keep Christchurch safe.  There are stories of those arrested being secured to nearby buildings upon arrest until further assistance could be sourced.   Prisoners were also walked over the Bridle Path – after appearing in court – so they could begin their sentence at Lyttelton.  In 1860, the Market Place jail was extended for the price of £95. One of these law enforcers was Edward William Seager: the second warden of the Lyttelton Gaol, the first Superintendent of Sunnyside Asylum and the officer who, single-handedly, arrested famed sheep rustler James McKenzie (remembered in the naming of the McKenzie District).  He even spent his retirement years as an usher at the Christchurch Law Courts.  It was Seager who first drew public attention to how our prison system was overloading – even with the opening of a new police station and cells in Hereford Street.    As there was nothing set up for the city’s mental ill, they were simply placed out of the way, in prison, adding to the overflowing problem and, of course, it was the last place they should have been.

In 1863, at two separate locations on Lincoln Road, Addington Prison and Sunnyside Asylum were opened; Lyttelton’s women prisoners and those mentally ill patients being the first to use the humble wooden barracks first built on those sites.  In 1870, being designed by Mountfort, Addington Prison became New Zealand’s only prison to be built on the panoption model.  It remains as one of the country’s earliest examples of concrete construction – its perimeter wall (pictured) amongst the oldest samples in Canterbury.   These walls are still 60cm thick and were erected through prison labour.  In 1874, the men’s section was built and, amazingly, remained a functional prison right up until 1999.  At the time of its closure, it was the oldest surviving place of confinement for both sexes in New Zealand.

This historic build soon rendered Christchurch’s first lock-up – since known as the “City Gaol” – as redundant and its doors closed on 17th April 1874.  It was later demolished.

Addington Prison was turned into the Jailhouse Accommodation in 2006, offering quite a unique hostel experience for its lodgers.  Since then, stories have been told by those who have spent the night, hearing voices and having the feeling of being watched – its turbulent history is not far from the surface.

Upon visiting the old prison to take the attached photos and have a bit of a soak in the atmosphere there, Chris & I had a “ghostly” experience ourselves.  Our four-wheeled vehicle has sensors around the front and back bumpers, letting you know by an increasing intense beeping noise when approaching another object while parking.  We were parked up beside the remaining women’s prison wall, preparing to leave when our sensor starting beeping – but at irregular intervals; like a line of people were walking behind us.  There was only a small hedge behind us and not a breath of wind.  We’ve never had our sensors act like that before – it was quite something…or quite someone.

*Photos taken by Annette Bulovic*

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