Digging for background recently on how a slice of the Auckland Domain was chopped off by the government in the mid-1860s to provide a pathway for the Auckland-to-Drury and Onehunga train line, I was reliant on recent Auckland City council reports.

But a week ago, I stumbled on copies of the original legislation, just published as part of an easily accessibly treasure trove of historical statutes by the Parliamentary Counsel Office.

Like a coffee-table photographic album of old New Zealand, this digitised collection of the original versions of New Zealand statutes, from 1841 to 2007, offers a window on to the birth pangs of a new country.

It provides fascinating snapshots of settlers and "natives" learning to live together. It's at www.nzlii.org (look for NZ Acts as Enacted).

From day one, the issues have a familiar ring about them: Law and order, stray dogs, education, taxes, Maori land and representation. The law makers kicked off with the basics, setting up a system of courts and cutting the apron strings from the governor of New South Wales. Crown income was guaranteed with custom tariffs and excise duties on liquor.

Town councils were set up because "inhabitants themselves are best qualified" to govern themselves, and because "the habit of self-government in such cases hath been found to keep alive a spirit of self-reliance and a respect for the laws".

With towns, of course, came the perennial trouble of stray dogs and with it, in 1844, "an ordinance to provide a summary mode of abating the nuisance". Wandering dogs were to be impounded and if not claimed within a night and full day, "the person having custody ... shall forthwith destroy the same by hanging".

In March, 1842, came the equivalent of the current "leaky homes" crisis. To "discourage" the building of houses from "raupo, nikau, toetoe ... straw and thatch", which had a tendency to catch fire, a tax of £20 a year was imposed on existing ones, and a fine of £100 on any new ones.

A couple of months before, "for the promotion of good morals within the Colony", an incentivised system of state subsidies was introduced to promote church building and support ministers of religion. The government would match any funds raised for church building to a maximum of £1000.

To qualify, at least a third of the seats in the new church were to be marked "free seats" and "no rent shall be at any time charged". The state would also subsidise ministers stipends on a rising scale, based on the number of signed-up parishioners.

In 1847, the first Education Act committed funds that do "not exceed one-twentieth part of the estimated revenue of the Colony or province" to provide education for the country's youth.

"Religious education, industrial training and instruction in the English language shall form a necessary part of the system to be pursued therein," says the legislation, though parents "dissenting from the religious doctrines" being taught could withdraw their children from such classes.

Police Minister Judith Collins and her Sensible Sentencing Trust allies will read the old laws and weep - forget their three-strikes legislation.

In 1866, anyone convicted of a second charge of being "a rogue and vagabond" was "deemed an incorrigible rogue" and subject to up to two years in gaol with hard labour. It didn't take much to become "a rogue and vagabond".

Playing "any unlawful game" on the street was enough, as was "obscenely exposing his person". So was being "found by night ... wearing felt or other slippers".

In 1863, the already harsh laws for those serving life "in penal servitude" were toughened. To enforce jail-house discipline, as well as terms of solitary confinement, prisoners could be placed in irons and receive "whippings not exceeding 50 lashes at one time".

On the "native" front, there's the 1847, £100 annuity for life to Thomas Walker Nene "for the zeal, courage and loyalty displayed by him during the rebellion in the northern part of this Colony". And in 1867, the act declaring "it is expedient for the better protection of the interests of Her Majesty's subjects of the native race that temporary provision should be made for the special representation" of Maori in parliament and the provincial councils. This temporary provision remains, more than a century on.

This new web-based database arises from a 2008 report by the Law Commission identifying the need to provide and preserve easy access to historical statutes. It's an intriguing gateway to New Zealand's past, in language which, on the whole, is remarkably free of the jargon of present-day statutes.

As for that Domain land - the Auckland and Drury Railway Act 1863 stated the land to be taken by the superintendent of the province of Auckland for the railway "shall be held by him in trust for the Public service of the said Province and shall be managed, dealt with and administered by him for the purposes of this Act". It doesn't address the situation of his successors, 150 years on, who now want to hock it off or rent the land to the highest bidder. But it does give us a clear view of why the government of the day saw fit to help themselves to this slice of public park land.