Weird and wonderful 19th-century laws

I write this column in my pyjamas at 3.38am.

I cannot sleep and the choice on the telly seems to be Tutankhamen's Grave or Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo, where he is a support actor to a chimpanzee.

On these occasions, I read ancient law books so what keeps me awake may well put you to sleep.

Our legislators 125 years ago were not politically correct but were as prolific as our lawmakers today.

My forebears settled in Balclutha in 1880 so here are some beauts I skim from the following decade which I'll bet my great-grandpappy must have enjoyed as much as me.

The new colony got straight to business that decade, passing the Deceased Wife's Sister Act 1880 which made it lawful to marry your wife's sister provided that, it is specifically noted, your wife was dead.

Queen Victoria approved this liberating bit of legislation.

A year later, the Chinese Immigrants Act 1881 decided to clip the ticket on immigrants of only Chinese descent by charging them each 10 to get off the boat.

Smelling money, Parliament then rolled out the Imbecile Passengers Act 1882, which imposed a bond on the owner of any ship which transported to New Zealand any "lunatic, idiotic, deaf, dumb, blind and infirm person who was likely to become a charge on the public".

The going rate was 100.

Has it been effective? Readers can judge.

But that was not enough. Obviously, lunatics and idiots were being discharged by the boatloads, certainly in Auckland, and this led to the Lunatics Act 1882.

Let's call a spade a spade! I expected to find two categories - firstly, a "lunatic" and, secondly, a "bloody lunatic" because the Act starts off with a dainty title stating that it is an Act to consolidate and amend the law relating to lunatics.

But it is short on definition.

It states: "Lunatic means any insane person, idiot, lunatic or person of unsound mind".

A lunatic is a lunatic, or an idiot? Well, that helps.

But at least I note that this enormous piece of legislation then becomes enlightening and reflects an attitude of social responsibility concerning the rights and the care and the protection of the property and the person of, well, dear me, "lunatics and idiots".

Popped into the middle of this Act is the "habitual drunkard" who is a bloke, usually a bloke, statutorily defined through his high level of regular drunkenness.

These laws would have been useful tools in the recent Undie 500 visit to North Dunedin.

In 1884, things became a little dull, but I note that it was necessary to pass a law called the Fake Notice of Birth, Marriage and Death Act 1884, which provided strict penalties for such a harmless bit of fun.

But then a few years later the fun really stops and along came the Criminal Code 1893 which was the precursor to the 1908 Crimes Act.

It is incredible to see the identical sections and great similarities between that code and our current Crimes Act 1961.

But we have lost the following colourful aspects of 19th-century crime and punishment.

Section 14 provided for flogging and whipping but prohibited it upon a female, or a boy under the age of 16, and allowed for no more than 25 whacks.

Section 144 imposed a stiff penalty for operating a "common bawdy house" which, in the small print, appears to relate to prostitution.

Section 318 (5) demanded a penalty of two years' imprisonment with hard labour for destroying a tree or a shrub valued at more than 1in the property of a dwelling house (not your own) or, if it was a vegetable and it was a second offence then the same harsh penalty was for you.

The image of a serial vege thief is delicious.

Sergeant Pumpernickle: "Three previous convictions for turnips, Your Worship, two for cabbages and one for a Brussels sprout."

Magistrate I. M. Vegan: "Send him down. Eighteen months with hard labour!"

Section 139 1 (b) exacted imprisonment and hard labour for any person "who publicly exhibits any disgusting object" although there is a defence if the display was for the public good.

I can remember the late Brian MacDonell MP waving around a foetus in the bottle in Parliament during an abortion debate and the famous Labour Cabinet minister Mabel Howard displaying, from the front bench, the most enormous pair of bloomers ever displayed in public.

The coppers should have been called at once.

Getting a bit tired now, I stumbled upon the Birds Nuisance Act 1891 and I hoped for a sweet ending to this column thinking that this was going to be a gentle animals' protection number.

But, alas, the opening section immediately told me that it was "An Act to Provide for the Destruction of Injurious Birds" and it permitted local authorities to categorise bad birds which could then be slaughtered in bulk by use of poison seed paid for through a special rate "not exceeding 1/16 of a penny in the pound". About the same as for funding a new stadium.

I can remember well the biggest public relations gaffe by the Dunedin City Council 25 years ago when we decided to poison the pigeons in the Octagon stealthily at night using a company delightfully known as Rentokil.

We forgot that the hapless birds did not fly away to die but prostrated themselves, dead, in the hundreds, feet up, on the footpaths.

In the morning, the late, beloved Jean McLean was beside herself and we decided that our public relations had slipped a little that day.

Could do better.

I am yet to find, before my eyes close, that old mining law which allowed for the court to toss a coin if the decision was too hard.

I knew a magistrate up north who did that all the time.

Most litigants thought his decisions, percentage wise, were actually better than if he had made the decision himself, so no-one complained.

But that's another story.

Michael Guest is a former lawyer and District and Family Court judge.


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