Delving into our murky past

18:53, Nov 19 2012

Canadian Museums intern Stephanie Vaillant is on a mission to uncover part of Taranaki's unsavoury past.

On a six-month internship at Puke Ariki, Vaillant has the job of sifting through the Supreme Court records from 1870 to 1940 to set up an easy-to-access database of who did what to whom, when and what happened.

She has also been going through the records, taking out old staples and making sure they are stored safely, to ensure their longevity.

During her detective work, Vaillant has found some fascinating cases. "For every 20 unpaid promissory note - that's an IOU - you get one juicy titbit or something interesting."

She has learnt that in the 19th century, slander was taken seriously and saying nasty things could land you in court.

One such case involved a man going into a general store, where he told the storekeeper his neighbour had purposely burnt down his house to get the insurance money.


Stephanie doesn't know the result in that case - and many others.

"In a lot of these cases, the judgment papers are missing. However, we do have the court minute books, so I'm hoping when I go through those the end of the riddle will be solved."

During her delving, Vaillant has found some names come up again and again.

One of those was an offender called James Nicoll, who kept notching up unpaid debts, but always had excuses and blamed others for his excesses.

Her favourite case so far was a crime against love and honour.

"There was a lady (Agnes Ann Day) who was engaged to a printer. He refused to marry her on the wedding day, so she took him to court for a breach of contract - and she won."

The records show Ludovic Lepage Norris had to pay her about [PndStlg]200, but Stephanie is not sure if he did. "The last document in that court case was a warrant for her former fiance's arrest, but it didn't say why."

Vaillant finished her Master of Library and Information Science degree, specialising in archives and records management, in June this year.

The opportunity to come to New Zealand was perfect timing.

"I get to miss the Canadian winter and enjoy my first Kiwi summer Christmas.

"It was a great opportunity to see another part of the world while gaining professional skills. I really enjoy the work they were offering - rifling through the court records really intrigued me."

In the "Great White North", Vaillant lives in Baden, southern Ontario, five hours' flight from the sea. "I'm thrilled to experience living near the ocean."

Her internship at Puke Ariki is supported by the Canadian Museums' Association and Young Canada Works Programme.

She is the fifth Canadian Museums intern at Puke Ariki since the library, museum and visitor information centre opened in 2003, says Puke Ariki heritage collections manager Kelvin Day.

"The quality of the interns is outstanding and the work that they do is so important in helping us to make aspects of the collection available to the community," he says. Each intern has also helped rehouse parts of the collection and improved their curatorial care.

Taranaki Daily News