There could have been few more humiliating places for the Rev Arthur Baker to be horse-whipped over his alleged sexual offending.

No sooner had the Wellington Anglican vicar stepped out of St Paul's Church than he was subjected to more than 30 blows in the thrashing meted out by Nelson merchant George Schroder, the father of the alleged victim.

"You have insulted my daughters," Schroder spat at Baker on the street outside the now long-gone church, which was sited near today's Beehive, in Museum St.

"It comes to this - that either you are a liar or my daughter; I believe that you are," Schroder said, hitting the parson on the back and left shoulder. "Now take your remedy," the aggrieved father concluded, according to the Lyttelton Times of November 24, 1858.

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The later protracted legal saga that had gripped Wellington for months in an earlier hearing, was coming to an end in the Supreme Court at Lyttelton, near Christchurch.

The vicar was horse-whipped in the street outside the original St Paul's Church, which was near the site of today's Beehive in central Wellington. Photo / F. Spencer, Alexander Turnbull Library
The vicar was horse-whipped in the street outside the original St Paul's Church, which was near the site of today's Beehive in central Wellington. Photo / F. Spencer, Alexander Turnbull Library

The court heard how Mary Schroder, 12, who was at a Wellington school for young ladies with her older sisters, was staying with them at the vicarage.

She had been ill and on a midweek June day was having a lie-down after lunch on a sofa in the parlour. Her sisters had gone back to Elizabeth Burbridge's school.

"Mr Baker was writing at the table near the window; I had some little notes in my pocket from Miss Burbridge," Mary told the Magistrate's Court, according to the Wellington Independent.

"... after reading them I put them in my pocket; I was sitting up when I read them, on the sofa; when I had read them I laid down; I had a shawl and put it over my feet.

"About a quarter of an hour after I laid down I went to sleep; I afterwards awoke; Mr Baker came across to me."

The paper here censored the critical allegation because it was "of a nature unfit for publication, involving indecent liberties with her person".

The New Zealand Spectator included more of Mary's statement: "He then put his hand under my dress, he touched my flesh ***** he kept his hand there about a minute. I did not say anything."

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"He did what I have stated without my leave. I thought it wrong that he should do it. He knelt down and asked me whether I would not make friends. I said no, that I wanted Mrs Langley [the housekeeper]."

Mary said that when Baker - a bachelor aged about 41 - interfered with her, she called out loudly for Langley.

The girl wanted her teacher, Burbridge, who was fetched, along with one of her sisters, Kate. Mary told her sister what had happened and Kate told Burbridge.

Burbridge, perplexed, suggested to the vicar that Mary had been dreaming, a suggestion he at first agreed with. Mary's doctor, however, testified that she was unlikely to have been lightheaded.

The sordid story flew around elite circles in the infant town of Wellington and even the wife of Isaac Featherston, the Provincial Superintendent, visited Burbridge to get the facts.

Not until weeks after the alleged June 1 assault was Mary's father told of it, by Burbridge, and it was another month before he took the whip to Baker.

Law professor Jeremy Finn, of Canterbury University, who has written about the case, believes Schroder chose the street outside the church because there would be an audience, "which would ensure the matter would become public".

And Finn finds a political dimension too: the vicar was probably a supporter of Henry St Hill, Featherston's opponent in the election of 1858. As Resident Magistrate, St Hill also headed the indecent-assault trial.

Baker ended up suing Schroder in a civil action for assault, claiming £500 (about $58,000 in today's money).

Schroder's lawyer began a criminal prosecution of Baker for indecent assault and that went to court first.

Baker was tried before a St Hill and 15 justices of the peace. Seemingly on a majority of 10:6 he was found guilty. He was fined £5 (about $580) plus costs.

But on appeal to the Supreme Court - the equivalent of today's High Court - the conviction was quashed on grounds of bias and pre-determination. One of the JPs, C. J. Pharazyn had interfered with a witness, discussing the case with the housekeeper.

The second, civil case was moved to Lyttelton because it was thought an unbiased jury could not be found in Wellington, where the matter was debated acrimoniously in the press.

The Lyttelton jury awarded Baker £50 (about $5800), a tenth of what he had sought, and couldn't agree on the accusation of indecent assault.

Finn argues this was a compromise verdict that failed to clear Baker's name.

"Given that the whole thrust of Baker's case had been that substantial
damages were necessary to blot out the stain on his character caused by
Mary's allegation and her father's assault, the verdict fell well short of a
resounding exoneration."

Baker, who had voluntarily suspended himself from church duties, was reinstated by Wellington Bishop Octavius Hadfield in 1859 but, Finn says, appeared to have suffered a fatal blow to his career in not winning a clear verdict.

He married Harriet Cox and returned to his native England later that year.

Finn cites Anglican historical sources that refer to the parson variously as a "martyr", innocent, and having been "exonerated" by Bishop George Selwyn, although one author had noted that many rejoiced at Baker's departure from New Zealand.

The scandal seems to have left no deep scars on the Wellington Diocese.

The Rev John McCaul, an archivist and associate priest, said he knew of the case, but not in any detail - "it's locked away in the history books".