Mt Eden Prison

Mt Eden Prison

Mt Eden Prison, like others around NZ, saw an increase in inmates during the First World War. Inmates included objectors and prisoners of war.

Tough to keep going

The First World War had a significant impact on New Zealand's prison system. Records show that 52 prison officers had joined the war effort by 1916. This was about one third of all prison officers. Prisons quickly became understaffed and finding suitable replacements from a limited labour force was challenging.

By 1916 staff shortages in prisons were so acute that Charles Matthews (Inspector-General of Prisons) commented that it was impossible to effectively supervise and control prisoners.

By 1918, eighteen prison officers were still serving in the war.


Conscription and objectors

By 1915, the voluntary system of military recruiting was beginning to show signs of inequality, as some families sacrificed a number of their loved ones in war, and others none. Societal debates about the equality of sacrifice and shortages of recruits led to a special "War Census" in November 1915, requiring every male New Zealand resident aged from 17-60 to register. This national registration confirmed the availability of thousands of men for military service.

The Military Service Act of 1916 introduced conscription for military service (initially for Pākehā only) to maintain New Zealand's supply of reinforcements. The first New Zealanders were conscripted in November 1916. Conscription was extended to Māori in June 1917.

When conscription was introduced, the New Zealand Police Force faced an escalating workload to enforce war measures and conscription.

Some conscientious objectors who opposed the war faced imprisonment. In late 1916 well known Labour figure Jimmy (James) Thorn was arrested, along with other leading Labour figures, for speaking out against conscription. Thorn served a 12-month term at Mt Eden Prison, and was released in September 1917. Between 1917 and 1918, 208 men were convicted and 71 imprisoned across New Zealand for making public seditious or disloyal remarks.

By the end of the war, 273 objectors were still in prison in New Zealand.

Other consequences of objecting to the war included the loss of civil rights. Approximately 2,600 conscientious objectors lost their civil rights during the First World War. This included losing the right to vote for 10 years and being barred from working for government or local bodies.


Expanding the prison

Mt Eden prison was originally designed to the original plans of 1882 to hold 220 prisoners. Overcrowding of the prison soon became an issue, and by 1915 there were up to 305 in the prison at any one time.

Substantial building work occurred at during the First World War to expand Mt Eden prison. Building work on the south wing extension of the building began in 1914 and was completed by 1917, marking the completion of the original building scheme. Further construction work was completed in 1918.

The completion of the south wing extension during the war years allowed for better exercise yard facilities and brought about the end of the old wooden prison. Lack of funds, prison labour and construction from hand-quarried stone all contributed to the length of the building project.

Mt Eden prison continued its operations as normally as possible during the First World War, even attempting (unsuccessfully) to turn a profit from stone crushing.

War treason

Frederick Edward Norman Gaudin, a member of the Auckland City Council, spent time in Mt Eden Prison in January 1915 for war treason.

He was arrested by military authorities in November 1914 for carrying correspondence from German subjects in Samoa to other Germans in New Zealand, evading censorship. He was court-martialed and convicted of war treason in Samoa in December 1914, and sentenced to five years hard labour. In January 1915 he spent a short time in custody at Mt Eden Prison before being removed to Fort Cautley. The sentence was later reduced to six months, but he had to forfeit his council seat.

A subsequent petition to the New Zealand House of Representatives for an enquiry by an independent tribunal into his conviction resulted in the following report (dated October 1915):

"The sentence imposed by the Military Court, that of imprisonment for five years with hard labour, was out of all proportion to the offences committed. There was no reason to suppose that in acting as he did the petitioner was animated by any intention to assist the enemy by any traitorous or disloyal purpose. The evidence shows that the petitioner has suffered and is still suffering considerably as a result of the misconception in the public mind that he has been guilty of treason, which feeling is largely caused by the severity of the sentence imposed. The Committee therefore recommends that the Government takes immediate steps to put on public record that the petitioner, while he was guilty of, and was punished for, breaches of military law, was in no way guilty of either treasonous conduct or treasonous intent."


Māori objectors

Māori conscientious objectors were also imprisoned at Mt Eden. Led by Princess Te Puea, many Waikato men refused to go to Europe and fight in what they saw as a Pākehā conflict. Twenty-seven men were arrested in July 1918, including Tae Tapara. According to Tapara, the men maintained their refusal to go to war after intimidation at Narrow Neck Military Camp. They consequently received a two-year sentence with hard labour at Mt Eden Prison, eight months of which was served. More arrests followed, among them Here Mokena, who described his time at Mt Eden:

"At first we were not created unkindly. But when we refused to do any work at all, we were treated with considerable severity ... we were made to sleep on the bare boards with only two blankets. There was neither mattress nor pillow. We all felt the cold severely. Most of the time we were hungry because we were given only bread, and little enough oftbat, and water. We became covered in lice and used to pass the time away by having races with the kutus. Men who had been in prison told us that ordinary prisoners were treated better than we were because they at least had the usual comforts."


Prison conditions

During the First World War there was some debate about prison conditions and the classification of prisoners. Politicians were keen to better define inmates as either criminal or non-criminal, and argued for improved conditions for non-criminal inmates. However, during the war all inmates at Mt Eden had their privileges removed to put everyone on an equal footing. There were some reports of objectors being treated particularly poorly.

In early 1919, William White (a conscientious objector) died at Mt Eden prison. During an inquest into his death, the Auckland Star newspaper reported:

"Allegations as to the treatment accorded to military prisoner, William White, who died at the Mount Eden gaol on Wednesday morning last, were made by a number of conscientious objectors."

A school-teacher reportedly wrote: "The jail is full of nothing but objectors. The doctor asks the prisoners what they are in for. If they are objectors, God pity them if they are ill."

High profile prisoner of war

Count von Luckner, commander of the German raider Seeadler, was held at Mt Eden prison for a brief period in early 1918 after his daring escape from the internment camp on Motuihe Island.

Celebrating the peace

During the Peace Celebrations in July 1919, the Prisons Department permitted gifts to be sent to inmates of Mount Eden gaol. On 19 July 1919 the prison observed a holiday, and inmates received “special additions” to their ordinary diet on that day.

Photo credits

Cover image

Mt Eden Prison, date unknown. Image courtesy of Department of Corrections.

Thumbnail image

The officers of the Mt Eden Gaol, c1900.
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19000803-8-4.


We are grateful to the Department of Corrections for assisting with the research about the history of this site, and providing some historical information and images.


Khyber Pass Reserve, 267 Khyber Pass Road, Grafton
* Reserve is underneath Southern Motorway


"Mount Eden Prison, A Brief Historical Overview", A Report Commissioned by Saul Roberts, Architectural Design Consultants and Written by Bernadette Arapere, Aroha Harris and Hirini Kaa, May 1998.

Extract from undated document titled: "A Brief Social History" and retrieved from the Department of Corrections Mount Eden Prison archive file. No author was recorded.

Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1915-1918

'Thorn Released', NZ Truth , Issue 641, 29 September 1917, Page 5

Jim McAloon. 'Thorn, James', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 12-Mar-2014 URL:

'The Troops in Egypt', New Zealand Herald, 19 January 1915.

Archives NZ file: Coroners Inquests - Case Files - Auckland - White, William (R23736707, record number COR1919/397)

H. E. Holland, "Armageddon or Calvary: The Conscientious Objectors of New Zealand" and "The Process of Their Conversion" (Wellington: 1919), pp.115-16. Available on NZETC:

'Military Prisoner's Death at the Mount Eden Gaol', Auckland Star, Issue 40, 15 February 1919, Page 12