Heritage Week

Old High Court Building Open Day & Exhibition:

The Old High Court building is now part of the Supreme Court complex and the ceremonial courtroom was opened to the public for Heritage Week in Wellington. I went along for a look and found the theatrical design of the courtroom with its kauri panelling, large canopy over the judge’s bench and portraits of the former Chief Justices fascinating. I also learnt something in relation to historical accuracy for my novel.

When the building first opened in 1881 it was known as the Supreme Court as the plaster work on the outside shows, with the date 1879 of when the foundation stone was laid.

In 1993 the High Court moved and the building was left vacant for 14 years and fell into disrepair. As part of the construction of the new Supreme Court building the Old High Court building was fully restored and reopened in 2010.

This was the view from the defendant’s stand looking towards the jury seats. The canopied judge’s bench (on the left of the photo) faces the defendant.

Old High Court Interior

On the left-hand side of the room was the media bench, where bored journalists sometimes occupied their time by doodling graffiti.

Graffiti on Media Bench

Directly above and behind the “dock” (where the defendant sat) was the public gallery, where families probably got their last look at the offender. The guide spoke of women leaning over the balcony weeping or hurling abuse at the prisoner following a guilty verdict.

Imagine the feelings of the condemned man as he descended these stairs to one of the five holding cells below the court.

Stairs from dock to cells

This Court was the scene of several high-profile trials:

Te Whiti o Rongomai, Titokowaru, and eight followers were charged with forcible entry and riot after a peaceful protest over disputed land ownership. Te Whiti was sentenced to three months imprisonment and fined £100. The sketch below shows Te Whiti, Titokowaru, Inspector Pardy, some of Te Whiti’s disciples, and the scene outside the court.

The trial of Te Whiti
Leslie, Walter Jefferson, 1855-1915. Leslie, Walter Jefferson, 1855-1915: [The trial of Te Whiti]. [Wellington] The Evening Press, 1886. Ref: B-034-015. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22488632

The Wild West comes to Wellington: In 1898, a sensation in the tearooms of Kirkcaldie and Stains’ Department Store occurred when Annie McWilliams fired three shots from a revolver at the manager, Ellen Dick. One of the bullets struck the victim, glancing off her corset and two more shots narrowly missed staff nearby. The newspapers had a field day about the advantages of wearing a corset with headline puns like this:

Northern Advocate 1898
Northern Advocate, 29 October 1898. National Library of NZ.

Annie’s grievance stemmed from a bad business deal with Mrs Dick over the sale of the City Hotel in Reefton.  At the depositions hearing, Annie seemed quite unhinged interrupting the witnesses despite repeated warnings from the Magistrate to be silent. She came to her senses during the trial for attempted murder, changing her plea to guilty and was sentenced to seven years hard labour at the Terrace Gaol. Annie McWilliam drowned in 1925 after falling from the Auckland Ferry Wharf.

Daniel Cooper, a baby farmer and abortionist from Newlands, was the last person hanged for murder at the Terrace gaol in 1923. The case was reported in lurid detail by the NZ Truth and long queues formed for the public seating during the trial.

Cooper had confessed in his final days that he was guilty of murder, “but not to the extent that I am credited with.”

George Coats (aged 30) was tried for the murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Phillis Symons (aged 17) in 1931. Coats, a relief worker on the excavations for the Mount Victoria tunnel, struck Phillis over the head and buried her in the earthworks while she was probably still alive. Coats claimed during the trial to be a widower with six children in an orphanage. This seems unlikely as he married Constance Riddle in 1926, she died in 1930 and no births are registered to this couple. George Coats was hanged at Mount Crawford prison and the Wellington tradition of tooting car horns in the tunnel is said to have begun in recognition of Phillis Symons’ grisly death.

During the Open Day, I discovered that the gavel has never been used in New Zealand courtrooms. I’ve now changed a couple of lines from the courtroom scene in Chapter 21 of The Aerial Queen and thereby avoided making an embarrassing historical blooper. Phew!

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