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The Women of Lyttelton Gaol

stone buildings,
three boys on the dirt street with a girl closer to the
camera

Lyttelton Gaol from Winchester Street, ca 1890s
Palliser family collection, Canterbury Museum, 1991.345.3

Media Release, January 2019

The Women of Lyttelton Gaol

Many people don’t realise that the small port town of Lyttelton was once home to New Zealand’s largest prison, let alone that over 800 women served sentences there between 1868 and 1913.

A team from Lyttelton Museum has transcribed the prison records about these women, including their names, ages, places of birth, convictions, eye and hair colour and, sometimes, even descriptions of their tattoos. This fascinating slice of New Zealand’s history is available through the Museum’s web site in the form of a searchable database and a collection of stories about the women and the goal. Also part of the project is an original sound installation on the Goal site in Oxford Street, and an exhibition at Lyttelton Library.

What did we discover?

Around 40% of the women who served sentences at Lyttelton were born in Ireland, and almost all of their offences were committed outside Lyttelton. Many were prostitutes, and their crimes relate most often to drunkenness and poverty. There are numerous repeat offenders, with one woman imprisoned 80 times. The youngest we have found was just 14 (she had stolen a hat). The oldest was around 80, and was serving her 20th sentence at Lyttelton.

One of the best-known female prisoners was Amy Bock, who, in 1909, posed as a man to marry the daughter of a South Otago boarding house owner. Sisters Bella and Mary McKegney are frequent residents serving around 80 sentences over a 50-year period as part of a joint ‘life of crime’ that was tracked with breathless fascination by newspapers up and down the country.

The sound installation

In response to the stories we have unearthed, Lyttelton sound artist, Helen Greenfield has created a unique soundscape which will play in the rose garden beside the Upham Memorial Clock on Oxford Street over the 2018-19 summer.

The 9-minute piece is condensed from over ten hours of audio in which the name, age, occupation, nationality and sentence of each woman was spoken and recorded. More than 30 women donated their time and diverse accents to the work.

This project sheds light on a part of our history that is not well understood, and brings the names of these women back to the hills and the harbour where many spent a significant part of their lives, albeit largely unnoticed by the wider community.

The Women of Lyttelton Gaol has three components:

1. A website and searchable database, live from December 2018 at http://www.lytteltonmuseum.co.nz/

2. A sound installation on the Gaol site, now the rose garden and Upham Memorial Clock, Oxford Street, Lyttelton, until February 2019

3. An exhibition at Lyttelton Library, until the end of January 2019.

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