Vast archives exploring New Zealand's most notorious and shady characters, including criminals, convicts and highwaymen, will be made publicly-available this weekend.

A long history of colourful personalities, including intrepid vagabonds, audacious statesmen, polite pilferers and unshrinking violets, have helped shape New Zealand as a nation.

From midnight tonight (12.01am Friday) to 11.59pm on Monday, online family-history site Ancestry is offering free access to more than 55 million New Zealand, Australian, and UK criminal, convict and other subterfuge-related records, some dating back to the 1700s.

The records include early New Zealand jury lists, bankruptcy notices from 1893-1904, Australian Convict Transportation Registers from the first three fleets 1787-1868, Criminal Registers of England & Wales from 1791-1892, UK Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books from 1802-1849, Dorset, England, Bastardy Records from 1821-1853, British King's Bench and Fleet Prison Discharge Books and Prisoner Lists, 1734-1862, England & Wales Criminal Lunacy Warrant and Entry Books from 1882-1898, and British Criminal Lunatic Asylum Registers from 1820-1843.


The opening of the archives gives Kiwis a chance to look both into the country's past, both criminal and colonial, as well as their own family tree.

Ancestry has gone through its archive material to compile a top 10 list of the most colourful characters from New Zealand's history:

1. Charlotte Badger

The pistol-wielding British convict was one of the first Pakeha women known to have lived in New Zealand -- a journey made under dubious circumstances. Badger had given birth to a child while interned at the Parramatta Female Factory in New South Wales, and in 1806 had been assigned to be transported to Hobart aboard the ship 'Venus'. While the vessel was at port in Tasmania, the convicts mutinied and took control of the ship. True accounts of the mutiny are difficult to separate from folklore, but Badger was either a chief instigator or an enthusiastic participant. She allegedly dressed in male clothing, flogged the ship's captain and led a supply raid on another vessel. The mutineers sailed across the Tasman, where Badger and her child were set down in the Bay of Islands and became accepted, or at least tolerated, by the local Maori community.

2. Jackie Marmon

Cannibal Jack is believed to be Hokianga's first white settler. The roguish adventurer was a runaway convict from Australia who managed to find work at sea. In the early 1820s the ship on which Jackie was sailing was wrecked off the Hokianga Heads. The whole crew drowned except Jackie and two of his mates -- who were killed, and possibly eaten, by the local Maori. For some reason or other, Cannibal Jack was spared and lived among the Ngapuhi, where he acquired a wife and served his chief as a trader and priest. He also fought in Hongi Hika's great Musket Wars campaigns and allegedly attempted unsuccessfully to convince Hokianga Maori not to sign the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. His relationships with the European population were always tainted by suggestions that he had taken part in cannibalism, though there is no evidence this ever happened.

3. James Macandrew

Slippery Jim is a vital and controversial figure in Otago's early settler history. The Scotsman arrived on the shores of Dunedin in 1851, where he quickly set himself up as a merchant and ingratiated himself in New Zealand's political sphere. During his political career, he served as a member of the Dunedin Town Board, Otago Provincial Councillor, Superintendent of Otago, an MP and a Minister of the Crown. During the 1850s he was twice-accused of using Provincial funds for his own purposes, was declared bankrupt in 1861 and sentenced to prison for fraud. He famously avoided being imprisoned in the public jail by declaring his home a debtor's prison. The respite was only temporary -- he served out the rest of his sentence in a building attached to the real jail.

4. James McKenzie

The nights are cold and clear in Mackenzie Country -- some of the clearest in the world. On such a night in March of 1855, Jock McKenzie and his trusty dog Friday would have been sitting under those very skies as they surveyed the 1000 sheep they'd stolen from Levels Station, north of Timaru. After escaping his accusers, the infamous sheep rustler was eventually caught and imprisoned in Lyttelton, where he was sentenced to five years hard labour. Mackenzie escaped from prison on at least two occasions, after which he was placed in irons and closely watched. In 1855, the Christchurch resident magistrate investigated McKenzie's case and found serious flaws in the police inquiry and trial. McKenzie was given an unconditional pardon after just nine months in prison. After being freed, he sailed for Australia but McKenzie's deeds have ascended into New Zealand folklore.

5. Ben Shadbolt

A former Australian convict made good, he was the subject of a novel by celebrated author Maurice Shadbolt and ancestor to Invercargill Mayor, and 1970s left-wing activist, Tim Shadbolt. Ben Shadbolt was found guilty of burglary in Britain in 1845, and was sent to Van Diemen's Land, Australia, to serve his 15-year sentence. He met Elizabeth Perham when he was a convict on her family's farm. Shadbolt got into trouble with the law several more times before he and Perham travelled to New Zealand, where they married in Christchurch in 1866. They had many children, and Shadbolt became a successful local politician, farmer, publican and race horse owner. By all accounts, Shadbolt retained some of his larrikinism, and after his death a poem dedicated to him appeared in the local paper: "He wasn't a saint, God bless him! We liked him better for that".

6. Andrew George Scott

Scott moved to New Zealand aged about 18 and initially sought to make his fortune on the Otago goldfields. But when the Maori Land Wars began, he joined both the Waikato Militia and the Auckland Volunteer Engineers Corps as an officer. He was wounded at the battle of Orakau, accused of malingering and was court-martialed. After Scott moved to Australia, his criminal behaviour began. He allegedly held up a Ballarat bank after he was not paid by the church for work he had done. He gave the bank a note signed, Captain Moonlite. He was later found guilty of passing bad cheques and sentenced to prison. After jail, he left for Sydney. Tired, cold, wet and nearly starving he and James Nesbitt, who he met in prison, and others, decided to rob farm houses for food and weapons. He was captured by police near Wagga Wagga and hanged in January 1880.

7. Mary McRae

To the matriarch of a sly-grogging empire in Southland's Hokonui Hills, and her seven sons, whisky was a right, not a privilege. Mary and her kin were from Scotland and settled in the Hokonui Hills near Gore in the 1870s. At the time, a licence was required for brewing or distilling alcohol in New Zealand, and all sales were subject to excise tax. The McRaes saw it as their God-given right to distil the dram -- their illicit whisky was delivered in bottles, cans and milk billies -- known simply as 'Hokonui' -- and was said to compare with Scotland's best. It all came to a head at the end of the 19th century, when there was a huge swelling of support for prohibition. But the McRaes continued producing their illicit hooch nonetheless. Southland's most famous whisky producers are now well-regarded folk heroes.

8. Robert Wallath

Taranaki's own highwayman. Robert Wallath was popular, well-spoken and from a well-to-do family. His penchant for stand-and-deliver antics stemmed from a love of the romanticised chronicles of highwaymen such as Dick Turpin and the Australian bushrangers. On Easter Monday, 1892, the 18-year-old donned his mounted infantry uniform, a mask to hide his identity, a sword and a pistol, and hijacked a somewhat bewildered settler Henry Jordan. So began 15 months of terror and admiration for a figure that some regarded as a Robin Hood figure who stole only from the rich. Wallath came undone when he attempted to rob the Criterion Hotel in New Plymouth. He was overpowered by the bar's patrons and, by his own account, shot and injured the son of the local police inspector. Wallath served four-and-a-half years in jail and later released an account of his time as a bandit, A Highwayman With A Mission.

9. Amy Bock

Perhaps one of the least understood on this list, Amy Bock was born in Tasmania in 1859, and worked as a teacher in Australia before settling in New Zealand in 1884. Bock is known as a small-time "confidence trickster", whose most notorious crime was masquerading as a man named Percy Redwood and duping Agnes Ottoway into marrying her in Otago in 1909. The con only lasted for three days after the wedding, at which point Bock was arrested. Bock's life of petty crime and itinerancy is recounted in Mad or Bad? The Life and Exploits of Amy Bock by Jenny Coleman, who suggests that Bock was at least a product of unfortunate circumstance (her mother died in a psychiatric institution) and at best a proto-feminist.

10. Flora McKenzie

Auckland's elite rubbed shoulders, among other things, at Flora MacKenzie's notorious brothel in St Mary's Bay. Flora was the daughter of Auckland Harbour Board chairman Sir Hugh Ross McKenzie, who bought her the soon-to-be-infamous block of flats on Ring Terrace in the 1940s. The details of just how Flora made the move from nurse and seamstress to brothel owner isn't completely clear, but between 1962 and 1976 Madam Flora appeared in court six times on brothel-keeping charges, and was imprisoned twice. By all accounts she was a charming, fierce and immensely clever -- always one step ahead of the law. In fact, on one occasion, a jury and judge taken to examine her premises, expecting to find incriminating evidence, were confronted with a house littered with crucifixes, religious pamphlets, ornate bibles, and single beds.