Light crime, heavy punishment

The severity of any crime can range from petty to disastrous. You would think that the punishment would befit the severity of the crime, yet punishments do not always reflect the fact. This is especially true regarding crimes committed during periods where systems of law were inherently unforgiving. Following the instatement of the English Laws Act 1858, New Zealand was officially accountable to the laws of the motherland.

The criminal justice system of yesteryear reflects older attitudes and processes for what was deemed a crime and how people were punished.

1. Lyttelton Gaol.jpg

The Ashburton Guardian regularly reported on the proceedings of the resident magistrate’s court and the Borough Council as far back as 1879. This gives us a window through which to analyse how misconduct was dealt with in Ashburton, as well as the nature of these crimes.

In stark contrast to today’s practices lies the case of Kavanagh MacCarthy, the sentence of which was passed on Thursday, October 16, 1879. He was pulled up on a charge of vagrancy – essentially homelessness – and was sentenced to three months in prison.

MacCarthy was elderly and unable to work due to poor eyesight and partial deafness.He was found to not be a vagrant, but still incarcerated. We can assume the reason that Kavanagh was not sent to an alternative, such as the Ashburton Home, was his inability to work. Residents of Ashburton Home worked and crafted goods during their stay.

Resident magistrate Frank Guinness was subsequently told that MacCarthy’s case was “the worst case that ever came before His Worship”.

2. The old immigration barracks, which was also the ashburton home - the home that Kavanagh was unfit to reside at.jpg

This case displays how the concepts of elderly care and welfare had not fully developed at this time, so the elderly and destitute were at risk of great harm or poverty. Strides were made towards emancipating the elderly later that century, with acts such as the Old-Age Pensions Act 1898 being passed under the Liberal government.

The chicken thief

During the mid-to-late nineteenth century, it was important for many households to keep their own livestock in order to feed families. While this is true, it is not hard to see how the outcome of this next case could be deemed a bit excessive.

James Moore stood before Frank Guinness RM, to answer for charges of larceny on the very same day as MacCarthy – a seemingly interesting day for Guinness. James Moore pleaded guilty to stealing at least two dozen hens, which he stole from a Mr Hefford and a Mrs Perham. He then sold a number of them to a Mr Branson for two shillings a pair – evidence of James’ knowing guilt, according to Guinness.

3. Truncheon from Ashburton police.jpg

For two counts of theft,  James Moore was dealt a hefty sentence of 12 months imprisonment.

The question can be raised as to whether or not Moore deserved such a sentence for stealing chickens?

On one hand he deprived citizens of their livelihood and possibly their wellbeing, but on the other hand he had to serve an entire year’s sentence.
According to modern New Zealand law, this sentence could still have been given if James committed his crimes in 2018.

If the combined value of the hens that James stole exceeded $500 in today’s money, he could have been given a sentence up to one year in length, according to the Crimes Amendment Act 2003. However, if James had stolen less than $500 worth of hens, he would serve a sentence not exceeding 3 months in length.

4. Resident Magistrate Francis Hart Viceimus Guinness.jpg

It was not until 1886 that New Zealand would gain its own national police force, which replaced constabulary forces that had been established prior. New, improved, and amended Acts of Parliament have been introduced over the last century that reduce the chances of wrongful convictions or disproportionate sentence times. Reform after reform is a reminder of how much things have changed for the better.

It has been roughly 139 years since the MacCarthy and Moore cases, and it is a wonder to see how far we’ve come.

By Connor Lysaght.


  1. Lyttelton Gaol, where Ashburton people would have been incarcerated.
  2. The old immigration barracks, which was also the Ashburton Home – the home that Kavanagh was unfit to reside at.
  3. Truncheon from Ashburton police.
  4. Resident Magistrate Francis (Frank) Hart Viceimus Guinness, who was well-known for his concern for the unemployed and the interests of working people.

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