Police Gazette photo 1918

Research Your New Zealand Criminal Ancestors

Earlier this week I attended an entertaining and informative Alexander Turnbull Library Family History Talk about how to research your New Zealand criminal ancestors. The presenters were Trish McCormack from Archives New Zealand and Glenda Gale from the National Library of New Zealand, both experts in what is available through their institutions to help researchers like us.  They are humorous, talented storytellers so if you ever get a chance to hear them speak it’s well worth it. When Trish shared with us, “I was interested in murder from a very young age”, she captured my attention … turns out she has even written books on the topic.

Glenda and Trish used a number of great case studies to illustrate their points, some relating to infamous offenders, others of a lower key nature that could turn up in anyone’s family history.  They are their stories to tell, so I won’t repeat them here. 

What I am keen to share, though, is the record sources, tips and tricks they recommended for researching your New Zealand criminal ancestor.

I’ll use another case study to illustrate the sort of records you can find. I was intrigued by Trish’s reference to the case of the “Taranki Highwayman” a.k.a the “Taranaki Turpin”.  Robert Herman Wallath was a New Plymouth teenager arrested in 1893 for a spate of criminal activity in the style of the famous highwayman. My interest was piqued as one of my own family stories, almost certainly a myth, is that we are related to Dick Turpin! 

At this point can I say, “be prepared for what you might find”. If you look for criminal activity in your family’s past you may indeed discover some, as has been the case for many of us.

Papers Past – from the National Library of New Zealand

If your family member was arrested and appeared in Court there’s a very good chance that it will have been written about in a local newspaper. So the National Library’s Paper’s Past website is a good first place to start.

Papers Past contains more than three million digitised and searchable pages of New Zealand newspapers and periodicals covering 1839 to 1945. It includes 93 publications from all regions of New Zealand, although not all of them cover the full date range.

Often these newspaper reports were very descriptive, given that they drew on eye-witness accounts as well as official proceedings.  In my experience, they can make fascinating reading even if they are nothing to do with your family.

Papers Past Example
Paper’s Past search result for “Robert Wallath highwayman”

Try searching Papers Past for your ancestor by name, including variations (full name, initials and surname, Mr or Mrs etc) and any aliases. If you suspect they may have used aliases, Glenda suggested trying lateral options like searching by other surnames in that family or known family nicknames.  This is particularly worthwhile for people who committed dishonesty offences, such as tricksters and con artists. These people were going out of their way not to be found so they won’t be making it easy for you either.

Trove –  from the National Library of Australia

It is not unusual for people to move back and forth across the ditch (for those not from these parts, that means between New Zealand and Australia, the ditch being the Tasman Sea).  If your ancestor was wanting to get away from trouble, they may well have gone to Australia.  Trove’s Australian Newspapers Online is that country’s equivalent of Papers Past so try searching there too.

Police and Justice Files – held by Archives New Zealand

Firstly, if you are not familiar with Archives New Zealand, here’s a handy guide about searching and ordering records through Archway.  It’s particularly important that you read this carefully if you are visiting from out-of-town, as you need to bring suitable ID with you to register as a ‘reader’, and if you are coming to look at restricted records, you will need to have arranged appropriate permissions beforehand. You may be disappointed if you don’t get all your ducks in a row before your visit.

Over the last couple of years, Archives New Zealand has progressively indexed their holdings of historical Police and Justice files so that you can search for them by a person’s name on their online catalogue, Archway. You will then need to visit Archives New Zealand in Wellington to view the physical file.  You could also arrange for someone to do this for you, or request Archives assistance.

The files date from around the 1870s through to the 1920s.  Coverage is not comprehensive as many records from that period were not kept. But you never know, you might be lucky and strike one relevant to your family.  

Yesterday I went into Archives’ Wellington office to view Robert Wallath’s Police file [Arrest of “Taranaki Highwayman” Robert Wallath, Archives NZ ref R20119965].  In it I found: 

  • the arresting Constable’s formal report, with Inspector’s cover letter
  • Police telegrams as the arrest unfolded
  • 3 pages of related press clippings
  • correspondence about rewards for assistance in capturing Wallath.

Viewing the actual documents from 1893 really does take you back in time. 

Robert Wallath Police Arrest Report p1
Constable McAnerin’s arrest report, p1

I particularly like the description in Constable McAnerin’s report of Wallath at the time of the Taranaki highwayman’s arrest.  

“He was wearing a scarlet tunic, trousers with white stripes down them, shoulder belt and sword belt, also white gloves. I received a uniform cap, false whiskers and green mask, also two loaded revolvers, one of which a chamber has been discharged… “

It even adds colour to the photo of Wallath in disguise taken later in the New Plymouth gaol!

Taranaki News Clippings 29 July 1893
Clippings from the Taranaki News, 29 July 1893

The page of clippings from the 29 July 1893 issue of the Taranaki News was also a real find. This newspaper is not available on Papers Past. It would require manual searching of microfilmed copies to get this very local perspective on the events.

Police Gazettes – held by Archives New Zealand

Police Gazettes can be another excellent source of information about your criminal ancestor. Archives NZ holds bound volumes of the national monthly Police Gazette from 1877, with some available for earlier years depending on the region.  They are open to view right up to 1944, as the restricted access period for these publications is only 70 years, rather than the usual 100.

Police Gazette 28 Dec 1893 p204
Police Gazette-Prisoners tried at the Supreme & District Courts 1893

If you know approximately when your family member might have been arrested or appeared in Court, search and order the Police Gazette for that year through Archway.  Gazettes are available to view at Archives NZ regional offices as well as in Wellington. Each issue has a name index at the front, making it easy to check if your ancestor features that month.

Sometimes you will find a short description of their crime, and after 1908 a mug shot or photograph, if you are very lucky. Other information is included in list or table format later in the Gazette.

Coroner’s Inquest Files – held by Archives New Zealand

This is another Archives NZ development of great interest to family historians.  Coroner’s Inquest files are now indexed by name on Archway, making them so much easier to find. The files are only restricted for 50 years, so you will find open access files up to 1964.  For more recent files, you can apply to have that restriction lifted,  and family members often do this successfully although it does take time.  All scene photographs and suicide notes are permanently closed. 

Where the deceased was the victim of a crime, the evidence presented at the inquest may provide lots of detail about what happened. Interestingly, Honora Parker’s Inquest File has just recently become open to view at Archives NZ in Wellington, as the 50 year restriction has expired. She was, of course, the victim in the Parker Hulme murder case, depicted by Peter Jackson in his 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures. 

General Searches

  • Don’t forget to do a google search. You never know what gems other people may have uploaded to the internet about your ancestor.
  • Try the National Library catalogue.
  • A particular favourite of mine is Digital NZ , as I really value images.

Good luck. For me the joy of genealogy and family history research is in finding and telling stories about ordinary and extraordinary lives.  If you have a criminal ancestor, there is bound to be a tale to tell.