• D-GR-0008, courtesy of Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, showing prison huts on Rangitoto Island in 1930. Attributed to Edward Clark Lackland (d.1970)
Tags: History

A review of Jared Davidson's 'Blood and dirt: prison labour and the making of New Zealand'

Recently, I read Jared Davidson's compelling new book on the relatively unknown history of prison labour in Aotearoa New Zealand. Davidson traces the use of prison labour in road making, building construction, tree planting, brickmaking and many other public works from 1840 to the 1930s, both here and in the Pacific. It is an enlightening and well researched book and I note at least three local connections.

In 1888, the Armed Constabulary barracks on Fort Cautley, at Maungauika/North Head, were converted to an auxiliary prison for Mount Eden Prison. Prisoners were housed there for fortification work from July 1888 until April 1914. At 31 December 1911 there were still 30 prisoners left at Fort Cautley. In 1911, it was also proposed that prison labour from Fort Cautley be used to create an esplanade at Devonport, but there is no evidence that they were so used. One prisoner who worked at Fort Cautley later became a Labour Member of Parliament, John A. Lee.
From my own research, the Devonport Domain Board used prison labour from Mount Eden Prison in 1888 to repair Vauxhall Road and then again in 1892 and 1893 for work on Takarunga/Mount Victoria. That work involved forming and maintaining paths on the maunga once every six months over that period. Prison labour was again used by the board from 1905 to 1907 for removal of noxious weeds, levelling a playground, strengthening fences, spreading earth for topdressing football grounds and work on pathways across both the maunga and domain. The board paid for the supervision of the prisoners. However, the availability of prison labour for such work seems to have ended with the death of Prison Governor Francis Egerton Severne (1841-1907). Acknowledging his death, the board thanked him for supplying prison labour on "many occasions".
The Rangitoto Island Domain Board was vested in the Devonport Borough Council from 1890. From 25 November 1925 to the end of February 1935 the Domain board employed prison labour on Rangitoto Island, starting with 14 men. By 1930, around 13 kilometres of hand packed roads had been developed on the island and by 1935 this had reached around 18 kilometres, along with stone walls for the wharves, a tennis court and salt water swimming pool. The board spent a total of 5,000 pounds over the nine years supplying prisoners with housing, tools and transport, with the money coming from renting out camping sites on the island and charging visitors. The Prisons Department provided food and clothing and it was estimated the work was one tenth of the cost than if contractors had been used.


Issue 148 December-January 2023