Book describes city's criminal past

FRANCESCA LEE
Last updated 07:23 10/11/2012

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A window into Christchurch's criminal past has been opened by a new book.

University of Canterbury history professor Geoffrey Rice was researching the history of Victoria Square when he came across reports from the Magistrate's Court.

"The book [on Victoria Square] was delayed because of the earthquake closing the archives, so I decided to work on a new book," he said.

"I got hooked because there were so many interesting stories, from Supreme Court tales to murder cases.

"It's a different window into the past because historians usually use written sources and it's rare to get ordinary people's voices." Christchurch Crimes 1850-75: Scandal and Skulduggery in Port and Town, published by the Canterbury University Press, covers a selection of crimes from the first 25 years of Christchurch's colonial history.

Rice went through journalists' court reports from those times, which were written in shorthand and almost verbatim from court proceedings.

The cases included those of policeman Martin Cash, who kept a brothel on the side and was a great embarrassment to the force, and Alfred Ronage, a convict who kept escaping from the Lyttelton jail.

The most common crimes were thefts and forgeries.

"People were stealing vital things of colonial life, such as blankets and tools and equipment," he said. The main motives for crime in early Christchurch were extreme poverty and alcohol abuse.

The court reports were very different from their modern counterparts.

"Some descriptions of the murder cases were very gruesome, and the press was very coy in those days. Anything of a sexual nature was not published. They would print a line saying 'the facts are unfit for publication'," he said.

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