When Whangārei's Museum was first established in 1903 at the behest of Robert Mair, many collection items had already been gifted to the Whangarei Borough Council, its earliest collections dating from the 1890s. Donations originating from well-known early settler families were soon added and the collection grew.

The Mair family were among them and contributed many items to the people of Whangārei, including a pair of old handcuffs which belonged to Captain Gilbert Mair's father during his presidency of the Society for Law and Order in the Bay of Islands.

First visiting Kororāreka in 1821 as one of the early pioneers trading between Port Jackson, New South Wales and Russell, Gilbert Mair senior witnessed first-hand the numerous troubles and trying experiences frequently encountered in the Bay. As a whaling station, when ships were in port and their crews loose on shore-leave, life on the waterfront was rough, rowdy and sometimes violent, earning Kororāreka the nickname "Hellhole of the Pacific".

Despite this turbulence, Mair settled in the Bay of Islands in 1824, acquiring land at Wahapu from local Māori where he built his home and continued the business of merchant and trader.

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Gilbert Mair was also appointed Justice of the Peace by Governor Hobson, which was a most responsible and honourable position. Being the only Justice of the Peace in the district at the time, Mair was confronted with many difficult problems brought before him by both European and Māori.

As an early judicial officer, his duties were many and onerous, including hearing cases involving civil controversies, performing legal acts, hearing minor criminal complaints, and committing offenders.

Justices had great authority over the lives and liberties of those brought before them and it is most likely during these formidable years in the capacity of "peace maker" that Mair acquired these 19th century metal restraints manufactured by industrialists Hiatt & Co Ltd, Birmingham.

Hand and leg irons, also alluded to as swivels, shackbolts and gyves fashioned by Hiatt & Co would have been commonplace in 19th century New Zealand. Photo/Supplied
Hand and leg irons, also alluded to as swivels, shackbolts and gyves fashioned by Hiatt & Co would have been commonplace in 19th century New Zealand. Photo/Supplied

Maintaining community order was a priority in the colonial era and justices of the time were also responsible for arresting criminals, removing citizens behaving in a disorderly fashion and similar duties designed to maintain and restore a peaceful community.

There can be no doubt of the extensive use of these shackles, sometimes known as Darby's, as evidence of any maker's marks once inscribed on them is now hardly discernible due to years of attrition.

Prior to 1850 there were two types of metal handcuffs in general use which criminals were subjected to, either the "Figure 8", or the kind gifted to Whangārei Museum, known as the Flexible, both of which used a key locking mechanism.

Hand and leg irons, also alluded to as swivels, shackbolts and gyves fashioned by Hiatt & Co would have been commonplace in 19th century New Zealand and an absolute necessity to quell the disquiet amongst hot-headed whalers, colonists and Māori.

Although regarded as unwieldy and awkward, their efficacy was satisfactory for law enforcement in the Bay of Islands during tumultuous times, when petty grievances could easily escalate, sometimes resulting in death.

These well-worn, standard police issue handcuffs, reminiscent of the "wild west", are a curious connection to those who went before and a stark reminder of a turbulent era in the nation's history.

■ Natalie Brookland is collection registrar, Whangārei Museum at Kiwi North.