Alison Laurie

Alison Laurie


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at the Hagley Park case. This case was a killing which happened on the evening of the 23rd of January, 1964. On this date a gay man named Charles Aberhart was cruising in the area inside and outside a brick public toilet near the Armagh Street entrance to Hagley Park in Christchurch.

A group of adolescent boys aged between 15 and 17 attacked him. They punched him, they robbed him and they left him dying beside the path.

A passerby discovered his body later that night at about 10:30. The passerby had seen the boys who were responsible, and by the following morning the police had identified them and arrested them and taken statements from them.

Who was Charles Aberhart? He was a draper from Blenheim, aged 35 at the time, and at one point he'd actually lived in Christchurch and then he became the manager in Blenheim of a branch of the Christchurch drapery store, Millers. The year before, he'd been convicted of indecent assault on another male and he had been sentenced to three months in prison, and the magistrate had said at the time that he would give him a light sentence because the two parties consented.

He was in Christchurch cruising. What he was unaware of was that there had been a number of queer-bashings in Hagley Park at right about that time. There were reports from gay men who were sitting in their cars outside the park of seeing him go into the park, but nobody thought to warn him because they didn't know him. And the boys were seen running from the park afterwards, and some of the people sitting in cars outside were concerned that something terrible had happened.

The boys made statements about it. There was no question whether they'd done it; they admitted it and it was described as a queer-bashing.

They went on trial on the 5th of May and the evidence took five days to hear. And the judge, in summing up, reminded the jury that it was not necessary to identify the actual person who struck the final and fatal blow – they all admitted to having kicked and hit him.

The jury retired for seven hours. It was an all-male jury and they acquitted all of the six boys of any crime, which was absolutely shocking that they did that.

The newspapers reported the crime. The Christchurch Press reported it and there were a number of letters to the newspaper, but mainly the Christchurch Press were interested in the nature of juries and whether or not they're still appropriate to our legal system in the light of the verdict.

Nobody appeared to be willing to defend homosexuals, really, or to be concerned about whether or not homosexuals should have the same human rights as other people. In fact the only person, strangely, who did so, was the judge, who had cautioned the jury not to give any attention to Aberhart's private life in reaching their conclusions.

The weekly newspaper Truth mentioned this case only once, a month after the trial, in the context of another story about juries reaching strange conclusions, and they didn't discuss the sexual dimension of the case.

There were some other articles dealing with aspects of the case. One in Landfall by somebody called Ian Breward who said, "Homosexuals in New Zealand labour under a triple disadvantage. They are regarded with disgust, suffer severe legal penalties if convicted, and worst of all are not even guaranteed the posthumous satisfaction of seeing their assailants brought to justice; that is, they're not considered equal with other citizens before the law." But he also talked about abnormal and therapy and described homosexuality as not exactly a sickness, but as something which should not be regarded as a crime.

There was another article by Vincent O'Sullivan in a journal called Comment, and that was quite positive. He thought that the whole trial was full of the notion that the sexual proclivities of the victim should somehow alleviate the guilt of the accused, as if in some way the vice of one rubbed off as virtue on the other. He was outraged by the statement and the summing up of one of the Defense lawyers who had said that even if they went to Hagley Park to look for homosexuals, there was no offense in this; the youths charged had probably learned a sound lesson. The case is a tragic one: by which he meant, of course, a tragedy not for the victim but for the accused.

There was an absence of comment in left-wing journals and so on, and the only major periodical to comment was The Listener, which both editorialized and published letters on the case. The editorial in The Listener, by Monty Holcroft, is interesting. He was not particularly concerned about the fate of Aberhart, per se. He even made a gesture toward those who favored the acquittal, remarking, "Some indeed might believe it was better for all the accused to go free than to risk unjust punishment for one or two who were only technically guilty." However, there would not have been a way of making a verdict of that kind, probably, at that time.

But he also stated that Aberhart deserved compassion, not because his human rights had been infringed or even because he was dead, but because he was sick and we shouldn't treat sick people in this way. However, this is 1964, and it would be a further decade before the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of pathologies. So in 1964 describing a homosexual as sick rather than as morally evil was quite a radical statement. Although The Listener was prepared to say that Aberhart was therefore no more deserving of death than anybody else, it really didn't go any further than that.

Interestingly, however, this case was very important in terms of the legal subcommittee of the Dorian Society, which then, in the subsequent years from 1964 through until 1967, formed the New Zealand Homosexual Law Reform Society, and one of the strongest motivations for forming this society was, in fact, thinking about the Hagley Park killing, because homosexual people who didn't call themselves gay at that stage, and women didn't call themselves lesbians, either, were outraged that this could happen – that here somebody could be killed and people admit that they'd killed him, and yet nothing happened as a consequence of that case. So a good thing came out of that in the formation of The Homosexual Law Reform Society.

And a number of heterosexual people were prepared to be vice presidents of that Society, formed on the model of the British Society, because they also felt that this was a matter of justice. So in that sense Aberhart didn't die for no good cause. A tragedy for him, but he was martyred, perhaps, in the cause of what became gradually a greater and greater momentum toward legislative reform and an increasing awareness, even despite the very lukewarm responses of the media, but an increasing awareness among the public that this really wasn't the kind of thing that we should be seeing in New Zealand.

So that is the Hagley Park killing – a very important event in the history of homosexuality in New Zealand.

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