JP Called In to Clean Up Lawless Wellington

Early in 1841 law and order was falling apart in New Zealand’s first organised settlement and the colonists of the fledgling Port Nicholson (Wellington) wanted protection – not from criminals, but from “the outrages of the police establishment”.  Citizens demanded change, asking a Justice of the Peace to rectify matters.


Settlers said over-zealous police were bashing up prisoners in the cells, making dubious arrests, confiscating liquor and bullying those they came in contact with in the streets. Citizens feared for their safety… the more so when they realised that Police Magistrate, Michael Murphy, condoned and contributed to the lawlessness. It was alleged he often acted outside his authority, that he fined people without being charged and often declined to hear cases of perjury against the police.

Murphy had been appointed a Justice of the Peace in March 1840 by New South Wales Governor Gipps, and then Governor William Hobson made him Police Magistrate for Russell in the Bay of Islands, and then for Wellington.

But by March 1841 the colonists of Wellington wanted law and order, Murphy-style, cleaned up.

First, a public meeting, called to discuss the undeniable police aggression in the town and Mr Murphy’s failure to intervene.

Advertisement, New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator,
13 March 1841

And then second, to replace Michael Murphy in office with their solution to the problem: Dr George Evans, JP.

But it was to be only a short-term fix, and with a sting in the tail.

 “A Meeting of Great Sensation”

This was the headline in the newspaper describing the gathering at a crowded Barrett’s Hotel in March 1841 which had been called to discuss police aggression. Townsfolk had plenty of proof of illegal bullying by police and the actions of the wayward Magistrate: and they spoke up. One witness, John Wade, said there were 101 cases, easily proved, of police acting beyond their powers.  He told the meeting that the outrageous conduct of the police was so notorious on so many all occasions.

“I have in my hand here a series of statements which the parties concerned were ready to verify on oath, but they had not been sworn to, and which Dr Evans says are all extra-judicial. I’m not going to read them, but I content myself with simply observing, that it’s the duty of the police to preserve the public peace, not to violate it. It’s the duty of police to protect private property, not to be always found listening under the windows of public and private houses. In fact, a system of espionage had been introduced here, sanctioned by the Police Magistrate, which is not to be tolerated”.

Others at the meeting mentioned police arresting men who were marginally drunk, or even cold-stone sober, trumping up charges, spying on inhabitants, assaulting arrested persons and maltreating those in the cells ‘in a most brutal manner’. The story was told of the land-owner who went to the lock-up to bail his servant and instead of entertaining his request police detained him up overnight for no good reason.

“This is not tolerated in England”, another concerned citizen said, “and must not be allowed to continue in her colonies”.

More citizens spoke up, rounding on Police Magistrate, Michael Murphy. They claimed that he heard and decided matters way outside his powers: on the other hand he had declined to hear perjury charges against the chief police constable. He had fined people accused of crime without any charges being laid. On the odd occasion when his mistakes had been challenged in Court, he had caved in without retaliation: proof, it was claimed, that he knew what he was doing was wrong.

Murphy, they alleged, knew police were acting over-zealously and illegally, but instead of doing his duty and stopping the “infamous aggressions”, he sheltered police, turning a blind eye.


The meeting unanimously confirmed that “gross and unnecessary violence had been used by police” and expressed a vote of no confidence in Murphy who “by his non-interference to prevent police violence …sanctioned it”. It was a resolution that effectively side-lined Michael Murphy.

Townsfolk then asked one of the colony’s founding fathers, respected citizen, and Justice of the Peace, Dr George Evans to sit in the Magistrate’s Court instead of Mr Murphy. Evans would be accompanied by other JPs as appropriate.

George Samuel Evans LLD, JP. Alexander Turnbull Library

Dr George Samuel Evans had been appointed a JP on 29th October 1840 by Sir George Gipps, Governor of New South Wales who at that time administered New Zealand from Sydney. Evans was familiar with the law: a barrister from England, he had been Umpire – the chief judicial authority overseeing the process of law and order under the New Zealand Land Company’s self-governing Constitution.

Awkward Bench-mates

Evans agreed on March 24 to meet the wishes of his fellow colonists.  On 31st March he took his seat on the bench. Murphy was there, too. There was a testy exchange in which Murphy said he declined to share the Bench with Evans unless the law required two JPs.

Dr Evans replied, “You can do as you please, Sir. It is my intention to sit here for the purpose of administering, to the best of my ability, justice to the public”.

Exit Mr Murphy… for now

Having edged out Murphy, the hearing began with a person charged with drunkenness. The defendant accused the police of having used unnecessary violence on him. Dr Evans took the opportunity to observe “… while I will protect the police in the faithful discharge of their duty, if they use unnecessary violence such conduct will not go unmarked”. On this occasion the charge of drunkenness was proven and the defendant fined.

New Broom Sweeps Clean

Within months the Government issued proclamations appointing Justices of the Peace: George Samuel Evans was noticeably absent from the list. He had been bypassed.  Michael Murphy obviously had “the in” because by August 1841 he had been promoted to sub-Sheriff in Wellington, then in September to Chief Police Magistrate.

Wellington citizens were figuring out how to thank the dumped Mr Evans. They were indebted to him for answering their call to help clean up the lawlessness in the town. By their popular vote Evans had edged Michael Murphy out, who was proven at the time to be incompetent and servile to police. Unbelievably, the tables had now turned: Murphy, the unwanted one had now been reinstated to similar office while Evans, the wanted one, was out.

George Samuel Evans

The pioneer colonist (these days known as the Father of Wellington), practised law in Wellington for a period, visited England and returned briefly to New Zealand before settling in Melbourne. He turned to journalism and publishing before entering politics. He held several ministerial posts in the Victorian Government, notably Postmaster General. He returned to Wellington where he successfully prosecuted legal claims which secured his right to much landed property. He died in Wellington on 23 September 1868. Evans Bay and Evans Bay Road are named after him.

Michael  Murphy

He faced a rocky road in his new position as Chief Police Magistrate and with personal matters. He was accused of cheating during card games at the Wakefield Club, which, while not proven, led to his expulsion of the Wellington Club also.  There was further scandal when Murphy was allegedly  discovered consorting with a constable’s wife. Then, fellow Justices of the Peace declined to share the Bench with him and he was forced to resign his commission by the Administrator, Commander Willoughby Shortland, in January 1843.

Murphy tried for other positions as an official but they did not work out: previous personal troubles haunted him. He died in China in August 1852, employed as a Purser on the P and O Company’s ship “Canton”.

Apart from his duties and offices in Russell and Wellington he was the Magistrate who accompanied Captain Stanley on the “Britomart” to Banks Peninsula, South Island, when the British flag was hoisted at Akaroa. British authority was exercised for the first time that day, August 11th, 1840, by the holding of a court – a matter of procedure: there were no prisoners scheduled to appear.

Murphy Street in downtown Wellington, remembers Michael Murphy.



Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand


RCC 2014 updated May 2020