On 9 October 1846 an ordinance establishing an armed Constabulary Force was enacted by the Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand, William Hobson. Less than four years later, in May 1850, His Excellency, Governor of New Zealand George Grey appointed the head of the Canterbury Association John Godley as ‘Resident Magistrate of Lyttelton’, who then deputised the town’s first police officers Peter Cameron and J. Sheed. This initial Canterbury police force dealt with the growing drunk and disorderly behaviour amongst its founding population of around 100 European and 100 Māori workers, all labouring in the employ of the Association to build the port town infrastructure welcoming the first of the Canterbury pilgrims due to arrive later that year.
On the arrival of the first four ships from December 1850 the town’s population swelled by several hundred mostly English immigrants living in the crowded immigration barracks, along with a growing number of sailors frequenting the port town and its hospitality establishments. With this growth in population came a growth in disputes and criminal activity such as burglaries and assaults, and in early 1851 Godley appointed the Association’s secretary James Edward Fitzgerald as Waitaha Canterbury’s first ‘Sub-Inspector’ of police. A rather active colonist recently arrived on the Charlotte Jane, Fitzgerald also founded the Lyttelton Times in January 1851. In between his journalistic activities James joined his fellow police constables in patrolling the streets of Ōhinehou Lyttelton and keeping the peace. He would go on to be elected the first Superintendent of Canterbury in 1852, and then Lyttelton’s MP in the 1st New Zealand Parliament.
In 1851 the port town also received its first police lock-up with the construction of a rudimentary ‘V-frame’ detention facility. However, its fragility was soon exposed when a group of inmates, in a daring escapade, kicked through the floorboards and literally lifted the hut up from the inside and walked off towards the wharves. While the escapee prison cell was intercepted by the town’s constables, this incident underscored the need for a more robust penal infrastructure. Charles Crawford, a former whaler who had arrived in Waitaha Canterbury around 1844, constructed a small three-cell gaol out of clay bricks to replace the V-frame. Subsequently, a two-storey stone Police Office was erected on Oxford Street by William Chaney, who later contributed to the construction of the Christchurch Cathedral.
The following year, 1852, the town authorities embarked on building the formidable Lyttelton Gaol on Oxford Street by the Police Office. Designed by architect Benjamin Woolfield Mountford who would go on to draft the Christchurch Museum and Cathedral, the gaol was built using the labour of the very convicts it intended to detain. In July of that year the growing settlement of Christchurch laid the foundations for its first lockup, followed by the opening of the first cells at Lyttelton Gaol, which was eventually to house up to 300 inmates when completed, including 29 cells for women, although its full construction would take another decade of hard labour.
As the port town grew so did its policing requirements, and in the mid-1860s local businessman John Kenner built the house at 3 Coleridge Terrace in west Lyttelton, which was then leased to the Lyttelton Police from 1867 to 1870, complete with its iconic blue light out front and a stone holding cell constructed at the rear of the dwelling. In 1880, after 30 years of service, the old Police Office on Oxford Street was demolished to make way for extensions to the Lyttelton Gaol. In its place, a new police station was built in a Victorian Italianate architectural style on Sumner Road near the corner of Oxford Street.
The Lyttelton Police Station commenced operations in 1882, with a cell block added at the rear in the 1920s, and faithfully served the community of Ōhinehou Lyttelton for almost 130 years. The February 2011 Canterbury earthquake seriously damaged the old station building, which was declared unsalvageable later that year. The eventual demolition, beginning in January 2014, marked the end of a policing era in Ōhinehou Lyttelton for what had been until then Aotearoa New Zealand’s oldest operating police station.